Retail Sales: The Zen of Retail
Despite all evidence to the contrary, this writer has not lost his marbles. I am fully aware of how bizarre the title of this article appears to be, but hang with me for a little while and you might find some value in it.
Let me give you a little of my background regarding retail so that you will know I at least have some game when writing about it. I have twelve years of retail experience, eight of which involved retail businesses that I owned. I had a sporting goods store in Vermont for two years and a small convenience store in Key Center, Washington, for six years. In addition I have worked retail for other owners for a number of years.
I also have degrees in Marketing and Economics, so I can talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to the fine art of retail.
The reason for this article is to point out that many retailers have lost their direction and seem to have forgotten one of the basic principles of retail. No, I’m not going to tell you what that principle is right now. Instead, I’m going to give you a little background information and build suspense at the same time.
Well, today’s economy is, quite simply, swirling down the toilet. Smaller stores are having a very hard time competing with the big box stores. The big box stores are having a very hard time competing with other big box stores. Meanwhile, the customers are having their buying power diminish, seemingly daily, and they are grumpy as hell but don’t know what to do about it.
There seems to be a convenience store on every block and none of them are terribly convenient. The traffic and parking problems associated with the big box stores has gone from bad to worse, and sooner or later we will be hearing about fist fights in the parking lots as unsatisfied customers who are feeling the strain and stress of life finally take it all out on each other. News at Eleven!
Nobody seems to be happy except the Walton family and they can’t count their money fast enough. Make no mistake about it: Walmart is a success story and will continue to be so for quite some time to come. But what about the rest of the retailers out there? It would appear that they are left to scramble for the scraps that are dropped from Walmart’s plate when it runneth over. That is not a particularly encouraging scenario!
And what about the rest of the consumers out there who wouldn’t be caught dead in Walmart? What do they have to look forward to?
THE ZEN WAY
So what is this Zen thing? Zen is defined by Webster as “enlightenment attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition.” In other words, we find a greater understanding of life by looking within ourselves. Pretty simple, huh?
But what does Zen have to do with retail? For those who just fell off of the turnip truck, retail is defined as the sale of goods directly to the consumer. So how does meditation and intuition help a retailer to sell goods to a customer?
HOW DO RETAILERS SELL?
Now we have entered the field of marketing. There are various ways to increase sales in a retail store. Advertising is one; finding a way to get the word out that you have a product that is desirable and a must-have for any consumer. Make no mistake about it, advertising is expensive, so much so that many smaller retailers simply cannot afford to do media advertising and are left with social media as the only solution.
Pricing is another avenue to explore when attempting to increase sales. What is the perfect price for an item, a price that allows for sales while at the same time allows for profits? Do you sell low and make up for it in volume, or sell high and make profits on the higher profit margin? Or is the answer somewhere in-between?
Merchandising can certainly help sales. How are your products arranged and displayed in your store? Are they located for maximum visualization? Do the displays look inviting? Does the store itself look inviting?
All of these are questions that any retailer should be considering, but there is one that we have not mentioned yet and I believe it to be the most important retail practice of them all.
Contemplate this question: if you were a customer, and let’s face it, we all are, how would you like to be treated while shopping for goods?
Let me tell you a story. When I owned my convenience store, the only major grocery store in town was two blocks from us. There was no way we could compete with that store on price and number of products sold. They were simply too big! How could we possibly make enough money to stay open one month, let alone six years?
The answer came to me shortly after opening our store. I adopted the Zen way of thinking and I asked myself the exact question I mentioned earlier. How do people want to be treated when they are shopping?
It was my belief then and it still is today, that people want to make a human connection. They want to know that they matter. When they enter a store they want to be noticed and they want to be treated with respect. I believed then and I still believe today that people are willing to spend a bit more if they are treated like their business is important to the retail owner. I made it my business to become friends with each and every customer. I welcomed them into the store; I took the time to chat with them and find out about their lives. I let them know, through my actions, that they were important to me and by extension that their business was important to me.
Within three months of opening, our little convenience store was out-selling the major grocery store on weekends. Cars were backed up on the highway waiting to get into our parking lot. Customers would call me out by name when they entered and I, in turn, would call them out by name and ask them how their wife was doing or how their kids were doing in school. My store became an extension of their personal lives and they responded by coming to our store rather than the impersonal big store two blocks away.
How do you increase sales? Treat people like they matter! The Zen of Retail!
OH, IF IT WERE ONLY THAT SIMPLE!
Yes, there are other factors that affect retail sales. Maybe your location is horrible! Maybe you sell inferior product! Maybe the competition is turning the screws and making it tougher and tougher to compete with them.
All are valid considerations and all affect your sales; however, better customer service will always benefit you. Give it some Zen thought for a second. We do not need charts and pie graphs, nor do we need statistical analysis. It is an irrefutable fact that no business in the history of retail has ever lost customers because of good customer service. Other factors may have hurt their business but good customer service is a plus any way you look at it.
All things being equal between two similar, competing retail stores, the one with the better customer service will always come out on top. Why? Simply because, as I stated earlier, customers want to know that they matter. As a society we are becoming less human in our daily interactions. It is hurry and do this, hurry and do that, run and run and chase our tails and all the while we are chasing our tails we are weighed down by the pressures that mount. We worry about our kids, worry about our spouses, worry about our jobs and worry about our bills. We have limited money and limited patience and just once we would like to go into a store and be treated with respect and friendliness.
I make my retail choices based on customer service. I will not return to a store that has treated me indifferently. I certainly will not return to a store that has treated me rudely. Life is too short for me to give money to someone who cannot say thank you, or who talks on the phone while helping me.
The Zen of Retail? How would you like to be treated if you were a consumer?
WRAP IT UP
These are tough times! I suspect that they will become tougher. If you are in business you are in for the fight of your life as you navigate these unstable economic waters. There are decisions you will make daily; some will be advantageous and some will not serve you well. However, there is one step you can take that will never harm you, and it has the possibility of doing great good for your business. Treat customers as though they matter! Treat customers as though they are important!
Treat customers as you would like to be treated!
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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