Commercial retail was a way in which American commerce thrived, but it has changed dramatically – or it hasn’t actually, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the lack of changes and what the future holds.
Some issues with old retail include:
Failing business models: the rental market in some locations is astronomical by comparison to units sold per day or month in order to cover the overhead. I think a new model for retail spaces is needed and I don’t yet know if it’s collaborative spaces or something else, but I am always intrigued to visit or read of new places. It’s ironic to me that Amazon took over bookstores through its online sales and is now they are setting up brick and mortar bookstores.
The other issue related to a traditional retail business model of course that is hard to combat is the labor costs which are a fifth cheaper overseas if not more.
Lack of training and knowledge: Employees in many retail stores have very little training in customer service and specifically in the products that they sell. On one occasion within the last couple of years I was looking for a Wi-Fi repeater or an extender. I researched online and based on the info I found and the reviews I’d read I narrowed my search to a couple choices. Because I value retail stores, I went to Best Buy in Goleta. When I asked about recommendations on these and for a specific brand, the sales guy didn’t have a clue. When they found another guy to sort of help out they told me they could order the product and it would be there within a week (maybe sooner) for significantly more than what I would’ve paid for online. So of course I bought it online instead.
Store owners or managers must wonder if it is worthwhile to invest time in employees’ education about products although these employees ‘may’ leave the company – maybe even quickly after being hired. However temporary, the question remains: Would a returning clientele be retained due to a good education of employees and thorough information about the goods that they sell?
A couple months ago, I was at the Carters outlet and an item I wanted was out of stock. They offered to ship it to my house for $8 or so dollars or free to the store, but I live 45 min from the store so by not matching the existing convenience of technology they force people toward existing external sales sources. I’d rather pay the same retail price to Amazon and get the item shipped free to my house. Yes, I pay a membership fee each year, but by waiving the shipping costs of my items, I save more than I pay for that membership in any given year – especially once you factor in household not just individual purchases.
Lack of caring or bad customer service: As a teen and young adult I held retail jobs, I worked at Banana Republic, Coldstone Creamery, and the movie theaters. I’d say they all provided basic job training but none was overly customer oriented, or really had high of standards. As a customer, with the exception of Trader Joe’s, I can’t remember having exceptional customer service. Trader Joe’s is the exception because I almost always engage in enjoyable if not memorable interactions. The people who work at Trader Joe’s seem happy to be there whereas most others in retail seem like it is a temporary thing.
In my interest to know more, I wouldn’t mind a conversation with TJ’s HR manager to find out what is their secret.
Disorganization and clutter and uncleanliness: Oh, this is a big one for me. Cluttered stores stress me out. While I like a bargain as much as the next person, the idea of looking for a treasure or new outfit somewhere like Ross stresses me out. It’s possible some don’t mind the mess but my favorite thing about the apple store is how clean it feels – as in not cluttered. I will confess however, that with the diversification of the goods at the retail store, it’s possible they may begin to clutter it. Last time I was there, there was a coffee mug for sale, and a ball that syncs to your TV. These items, feel out of place although they are remotely related they are not proprietary to the company so they maybe shouldn’t be there. I’m curious to know about who will lead their retail in the future, as Angela Ahrendts, the VP of Apple’s Retail has just announced that she is leaving the company.
Constantly competing against technology with the same old tools: Retail stores cannot compete on price with a lot of online companies by the very fact that the overhead of a brick and mortar location and staff are costly, but they also don’t seem to embrace or equate existing technology. When screens, apps, code readers, and mobile payments are king, how is it possible that retail stores have antiquated signs, and labels? I want to be in a futuristic store, with videos, and interactive screens. How these are used, I don’t know, but I have some ideas.
Did we fail or did retail fail?
Maybe we are doing a bad job as customers too, it’s possible we are to blame. I see people all day long run through checker line while they are still on their phones, barely making eye contact. I’ve read that if we keep buying cheap products, ‘they’ will keep making cheap products. Maybe we have lowered our expectation and as a result we’ve gotten a lesser product, customer service and experience.
What would happen if we only supported stores that had a happy employee base, that was paid a living wage, that was educated in the products they sell, that was invested in the customers that walk in through the door, and their experience. What if these stores were clean, uncluttered, maybe included new or different technology, what if it was a place to connect with others. Maybe a place that has a clean bathroom too or imagine, a lactation room. Somewhere comfortable to go into on o cold or hot day with your kids, or your parent or grandparent that wheelchair bound. A place people could enjoy. Would such a place find support or would the unbeatable free shipping of Amazon, and cheap Chinese goods still prevail?
By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter