The Detail in Retail

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Traditional retailing is doomed. Gone are the days of brick-and-mortar stores and customers are now flocking to the internet. Amazon, eBay, and many more online stores have taken over the planet. At least that is what many customers think. Online shopping is convenient but realistically it’s just another channel in satisfying the needs of customers. It’s only another method for brands to distribute their products.

It has been estimated that global retail sales will top $24 trillion in 2015 (eMarketer). Of that amount only $1.6 trillion will come from e-commerce. So while that’s nearly seven per cent of the global turnover of retails sales, it just goes to show how customers have not abandoned the experience of shopping in physical stores. Their appetite is still strong for the physical outing of shopping.

It’s true that retailing as we knew it has become brutally challenging. Customers have more choice, higher expectations, continuously seek individuality, and have every means to compare. Branding has certainly played a part in differentiating one product from the other. But branding is no longer about a name, logo, and corporate colours. Those retailers who have remained successful are those who focused their endeavours in offering a total shopping experience.

Solve your customers’ problems

A common mistake among retailers is that they continuously harp about the product. How good it is. How durable it is. How affordable it is. What they don’t really tell customers is why they need it and why they must have it. Why the product should be yours. Why it was actually made for them to own and cherish.

Successful retailers present themselves as the solution to the customers’ needs. This can be done so easily in a physical shop rather than online. The one-to-one interaction with the customer can build a circle of trust, a relationship where any recommendation by the sales person is considered and valued.

Who knows how many times you have mulled over the purchase of buying a laptop. With so many brands and configurations, choosing the right model for you can be a bit confusing. Of course the first thing a seasoned IT person will ask is what do you want the laptop for. Is it for home or for work? To leave at home or for travelling?

Treat customers like Kings & Queens

No customer is a charity. It’s the actual shopping experience that makes the trade-off between the customer’s money and the product possible. Therefore it’s obvious that customers would prefer to purchase online if they feel that they are not properly served in a physical shop. It’s surprising how some shop owners and staff don’t even acknowledge their customers with a simple smile or hello when entering a shopping outlet.

Of course there is much more to this. For instance, the state of changing rooms. Do you have any idea how customers can be inspired by the sheer experience of a decent yet chic changing room? Unfortunately the changing rooms can be the most neglected space in the whole shop. The same goes for the general impression of a restaurant on how clean their restrooms are.

How many times have you been stuck in a changing room and if shopping alone not one customer assistant approached you to see if you need a different size? Let alone an opinion on how you look? Or maybe even taking the initiative in suggesting something else which matches or complements the full outfit?

Even when making a simple purchase at the cashier. Time and time again you see cashiers chucking items into a shopping bag, taking care of their long fake nails while tapping away on the point-of-sale system, and offering no eye contact at all when asking for payment.

Taking the cue from upmarket boutique shops, it makes such a difference when the cashier gives you a courteous smile, handles the items you plan to purchase as if they were the last ones on the planet, and makes that extra effort by bringing out the shopping bag from behind the cash desk instead of handing it over the counter. That is certainly a total experience which makes you feel like you made an investment out of a simple purchase.

Connect with your customers’ emotions

It’s a well-researched fact that shopping therapy is a proven method for individuals to improve their mood. Research in 2013 by the Journal of Psychology and Marketing revealed that 62 per cent of shoppers had purchased something to cheer themselves up, while another 28 per cent had made a purchase to celebrate something.

This simply shows that the shopping experience is a form of escape from the daily routine. It’s a solution for customers to pamper and reward themselves. The physical store can be transformed into a sanctuary by connecting with customer emotions. This is why many leading retailers invest in constant staff training to learn the traits of reading customer behaviour and utilising that knowledge into developing better shopping experiences. Well-trained staff can improvise according to the mood of customers. Customers who might seem difficult, or those who just want their moment of comfort, or simply a moment where they can find respect.

The shop environment itself is a main feature of the experience and this is where designers try to stimulate the customers’ four senses. From appropriate lighting and music to engineered scents, avant-garde retailers are putting in a lot of science into developing the shopping experience. Upmarket outlets are even serving complementary espressos and canapĂ©s to discerning customers to make the shop environment an oasis for customers.

Successful retailers are also those who are good at commercial and seasonal planning. Not only do they know what their customers want: they know when they want it. For instance, you would be surprised at how much thought has to be put into maintaining a successful stationer. There are so many events throughout the year that the retailer needs to look out for and plan ahead: back-to-school, weddings, Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, first communion and many more occasions like these transform the product selection of a stationer. Proactive retailers make that desired switch when needed to anticipate and satisfy their customer needs. Happy customers lead to stronger sales which can deliver better profits.

Set the fairest price

Yes, the price needs to be right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the lowest. Many retailers are sucked into price wars especially with the introduction of new competitors and mass market retailers.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should rip off your customer. On the other hand offering best value for money does not mean your price should be the cheapest. Retailers should constantly strive to seek other reasons for customers to purchase from them. The last reason should be price.

Tesco is a great example of a retailer that dominated the British grocery market while being blamed for the destruction of the traditional high street. As they would famously say, pile it high and sell it cheap.

Of course from an extremely successful retailing champion, today Tesco too is finding it hard to compete in the UK with the advent of low-cost operators Aldi and Lidl. This year alone Tesco reported the biggest loss in British business history. Why? Because their core customer base was purely motivated by price and nothing else. No retailer can ultimately survive the cheap and cheerful trap if it can’t sustain its low-cost position. Hence successful retailers price fairly but make it a point of creating a more dynamic value proposition.

Save your customers’ time

One thing that customers are increasingly lacking is time. Therefore those retailers who identify ways to make the shopping experience swifter and more convenient win the hearts and minds of their customers.

While online shopping is perceived as the most convenient form of purchasing products, it’s still not very convenient that you have to wait a few days to receive your goods which you could not physical touch or try before making your purchase. There is the convenience of wider choice and the opportunity to compare prices, but not surprisingly all that online research can be a very timely manner.

In the meantime traditional retailers have been doing their bit to sustainably increase convenience for customers through longer and later opening hours. Apart from this, visual merchandising plays a critical role in making the shopping experience convenient.

While many might think that visual merchandising is literally about making the shop look pretty, it does have a scientific role in making the shopping path more structured and easier for customers to find what they want. There are various methods to merchandise products like by category or fashion story. It all depends on the brand experience the shop wants to present to its customers which ultimately is inspired by their own customer behaviour.

Retailers can also save their customers’ precious time by ensuring their staff are attentive and proactive to the needs of the customer. This does not necessarily mean that sales assistants need to be pushy or nosy but it does help if the sales assistants give attention to what the customer mission is and quickly intervenes to save the day and nudge the customer to that much desired purchase.

Last and not least retailers need to keep it simple. Modern retailing has become a very complex affair but that doesn’t mean that the complexity of the business operation has to be transferred to the customer. Customers most of the time have a clear idea what they want. If not, they will know it once they see it. Therefore eliminate any unnecessary clutter and simplify the process in finding and/or identifying the desired product.

This article was published in MONEY Magazine (May 2015).