Retail, Heal Thyself

Again and again we hear the lamentations for American retail: it’s too big, it’s too generic, it’s hopelessly out of step with customer demands.

OK, so what are the solutions? Naturally, there is no shortage of industry experts, consultants and gurus weighing in: the future is omnichannel, the cure is artificial intelligence and virtual reality, you have to solve the last-mile dilemma, etc. Does anyone honestly think these very expensive, complex strategies will actually make a difference for retail, especially for small-to-medium sized businesses, in the short-term?

I didn’t think so.

I’ve already written about how there is room in consumers’ minds and habits for both brick and mortar and e-commerce and also some of the key reasons why physical retail remains strong.

So allow me to propose a much simpler discussion of retail solutions via the following guiding principle: there is nothing wrong with retail that can’t be cured by what is right with retail. Stated another way and with due deference to Waylon Jennings: maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of retail.

Back in 1974, a rather successful merchant named Stanley Marcus penned Minding the Store, his memoir/retail manifesto. It makes for quaint reading in the e-commerce era but it also strikes a very modern chord for how retail should function: exciting and inviting. If you are a retailer, how are you meeting the challenges to be both exciting and inviting in the e-commerce era? Take a look at the questions below to take stock of some retail basics.

  1. How is your store design? When was the last time you updated, rearranged, or simply tried a different display that is new, timely, gets attention or is humorous? When did you last visit a competitor or drop in on retailers while on a trip?
  2. What’s new with your product selection? Based upon sales data and industry intelligence, is your mix working well for your customers? More customers crave something unique — do you have it?
  3. Do you have a point of view? In other words, does your business stand out from the competition (down the street or online)? You will never distinguish yourself by offering the same merchandise, the same store design, or the same marketing as everyone else.
  4. Is your customer service unmatched? Surveys show that one of the most important values that shoppers place on retail is deep product knowledge and helpful associates.
  5. Are your values showing? This is especially true for younger customers: the ability to have transparency and to demonstrate a commitment to values larger than your business is a huge advantage and can help build loyalty. Those values might be supporting artisans, stocking sustainable/eco-friendly products, making a connection with community organizations, or dozens of other ideas.
  6. How’s your online strategy? I don’t mean a mere web page or Facebook account but I also don’t mean an overly complicated/expensive plan either. If larger retailers are reaching out to your customers every day what are you doing to compete for attention? Take a moment and check out some award-winning smaller retailers (and the efforts by the big stores) to see how they are using online tools to connect and drive sales.

I could go on and on about events, promotions, having a great relationship with your manufacturer sales reps, traveling to markets to see and connect but you get the idea. Now make it happen.