In addition, and since we expect our clients to place their trust in our recommendations, we are always looking for ways to make our knowledge base as comprehensive and complete as possible.
I realized that, no matter how much secondary data we collected, and since focus groups and in-depth interviews tend to be too expensive for most of our clients, we couldn’t say for sure that consumers were happy with the brands and products that most retailers made available. While there were always a few articles and news releases that highlighted the occasional success, I decided to pursue something more.
Following in the footsteps of well-known author Gay Talese (Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Paper Tiger), I decided that the best way to know about retail and understand consumer buying habits was to work in retail and talk to customers. While it's been a few years, I had the pleasure of working for two of this country’s most respected culinary retailers - Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma. As a result, Studio Spear has been far more informed and much better suited to its role as branding specialists.
Here’s a little of what I learned that still rings true today:
I had the pleasure of working with mostly mature colleagues. Not only were they able to make better recommendations and anticipate customer needs, they were self-motivated, passionate about cooking and brought experiences to the workplace that would be far too expensive to teach. I found that, along with our customers, they were a joy to be around and made the working/shopping environment a very pleasant place to be. Customers frequently sought out sales staff by name.
Unfortunately, and with both retailers, management eventually decided that mature staff was too “expensive.” As time passed, I watched in horror as new hiring practices favored very young, untrained and uninformed replacement workers. While these employers had found an effective way to reduce overhead (lower hourly wages), customer satisfaction dropped. In consideration of an ever-growing competitive environment, the undisputable dominance that big box discounters enjoy, and the ongoing demise of independent specialty retailers, I would have recommended a different approach.
At the time of my employment, both retailers had, and still maintain, a distinctive and appealing merchandising strategy. In order to preserve the look and feel of these selling environments, they chose to avoid manufacturer-branded packaging in favor of a “house style.” What I found surprising was that, as merchandise arrived, we were constantly throwing out tremendous volumes of expensive packaging: full color litho boxes, vinyl cases with snap closures, hang sell blister cards and, on occasion, point of sale displays. When I mentioned this practice to manufacturers, they were horrified. Their concern was, not for the destruction of their packaging but, for the savings that could have been passed along to these retailers through bulk shipping of products (sans packaging). And while none of us (employees) were being paid exorbitant wages, the time we spent unpacking and re-ticketing these products was significant.
Customers Appreciate Quality
I’ve been hearing, all too frequently, about customer dissatisfaction, disgruntled employees and an overall reduction of quality in retailing. My retail experience highlighted ways that standards of excellence have been allowed to decline. If retailers want to attract competent employees or build and maintain customer loyalty, it doesn’t have to be an expensive exercise. Based solely on what I witnessed, the following practices will provide value:
HIRE WELL - A knowledgeable, experienced and self-motivated sales force can build brand equity. Customers recognize quality, including quality of service, and will support retailers who deliver the greatest value for money.
SEEK OUT REAL SAVINGS - If you need to cut costs, don’t do it at the expense of valuable human resources and customer relationships. Negotiate better deals with suppliers, identify and reduce inefficient operations and be open to suggestions.
BUILD ADVOCATES - Anything you can do to convert customers to advocates and employees to ambassadors will have a positive effect on your bottom line. Treat everyone as if they were your best friend. Good friends support each other all of the time - no questions asked.
While all of this may sound obvious, it’s amazing to see how many companies are on the decline because they fail to embrace these simple ideas.
With nearly 40 years of operation, I no longer seek employment from retailers to boost my industry knowledge. I do, however, continue to visit stores, mystery shop, and play “devils advocate” all the time. I am convinced these are worthwhile practices and one of the reasons Studio Spear’s marketing strategies are as effective as they are.
If you are a corporate executive, I’d suggest losing the business suit, putting on an apron and working “in the trenches” from time to time. If you are a manufacturer, find ways to become a “fly on the wall.” You’ll be amazed by the things retailers and their staff are saying about your company and your products.
When business is good, it’s easy to sit back and let things happen. I believe that a proactive approach to business management and brand maintenance is essential. Without an ongoing, and hands-on process of evaluation and a willingness to embrace change at every level of operation, you may find your company out of touch, out of favor, out of step, and out of business.