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A view of the industry through the eyes of independent and chain retailers.

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510 Tips To Survive in a Tough Retail Economy

When the going gets tough, the tough....

by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (August 16, 2010)

There are two kinds of retailer reactions in tough times: retailers who hunker down, preferring to wait and see what happens before making a move; and retailers who look for opportunity. These retailers are willing to scrutinize day-to-day operations and dive into waters their complacent competitors tend to avoid. They find ways to move forward, tapping every available resource along the way, without spending lots of extra money to get to their goal. These are the retailers to model in tough economic times. Here are 10 things they have in common:

1. Become a 1%-er. Vow to be just one percent better each day and you will be amazed at what you will accomplish. That little one percent more will help you grow your business in all sorts of new ways. You’ll look at your store with fresh eyes and you’ll see new opportunity where you’ve never seen it before. Your customers will notice – and so will your competition. Being a 1%-er requires focus and commitment.

2. Keep Your Eye On the Big Picture. Always keep one eye on the BIG picture – long- range goals for your store. You need short-term goals as well, but understand that to keep the future bright, you have to make future plans. Part of this planning involves keeping track of retail trends, keeping notebooks of things you’d like to do, floor moves you’d like to make, lines you’d like to sell, etc. When a vendor visits your store, spend quality time with the vendor, taking full advantage of his or her knowledge.

If you don’t have time to set goals or work on the big picture, ask your team for help. When you turn over some of the day-to-day tasks to your associates, you’ll find extra time in your day. Don’t be afraid to delegate!

Remember this African proverb: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same goes for the goals you set. You can easily accomplish your goals by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable, easy-to-do steps. Plan your work, and then work your plan.

3. The Customer’s Definition is the Only One that Counts. Every retailer has an opinion of their customer service and it’s usually better than their customers'. But when it comes to service, the customer’s definition is the only one that counts.

Don’t assume you know what your customers are thinking. If they’re not happy, they probably won’t tell you, they’ll just quietly go someplace else to buy what you sell. If you don’t know how your guests define great service, then you’re going to have to ask.

One day a month, station yourself near the front door and conduct Exit Interviews. Introduce yourself and ask customers if they found everything they were looking for. Ask about their in-store experience and their interaction with your store associates. Ask if there are any classes or events they’d like to attend or product they wish you carried.

When a customer tells you something good, write it down! Use their positive quotes in ads, bag stuffers, in-store signing, and on your website. A customer testimonial is instant credibility because it’s 10–20 times more believable than what you have to say about yourself.

4. Ask the BIG Question. Ask customers, “What ONE thing could we do to ___________________?  You fill in the blank. You might ask, “What ONE thing could we do to improve our customer service?” or “What ONE service could we add that would make it more convenient for you to shop here?” or “What ONE product line would you like us to carry?” Because the customer has to put thought into their answer, you will hear constructive things that you will be able to implement. And don’t be surprised if several customers tell you a variation on the same theme – that’s a good thing! If it’s positive, then you have one more thing to brag about, and if it’s negative, then you know just what to fix.

5. Do one more thing. Before the customer leaves the store, before you hang up the telephone, before you hit send on that email, do one more thing. Invite the customer to sign-up to receive your newsletter and email blasts. Ask if they’d like to be part of your loyalty club. Send information about upcoming events. Just do or suggest something that will keep that customer closer to your store.

6. Adopt our “7-Tile Rule”: A greeter makes sense on days when the store is really busy, but when it’s not, you can still make customers feel welcome. Whenever anyone in the store – sales associate, stock person, truck driver or, CEO – comes within seven floor tiles – that’s 7’ – of a customer, they must personally acknowledge that customer. You can engage the customer in conversation or look him/her in the eye and smile and nod, whatever makes sense at the time is okay as long as every single customer is acknowledged. You really want to make this a priority? Tell your team that if they catch you ignoring a customer, lunch time pizzas are on you every Saturday for a month.

7. Implement the 360 Degree Pass-By. Ideally, you should do an in-depth tour of your store at least once a month, but to keep things in balance, do our 360 Degree Pass-By each morning before you unlock the doors for business.

Survey the parking lot; size up the store front; access the Decompression Zone (the first 5’ to 15’ just inside the front door of the store); work your Speed Bumps, the displays just beyond the DZ that shoppers see first; check the displays at the front right: 90% of shoppers enter the store and turn right – this area needs to be set to sell!

Review your in-store signing: Does it make sense? Check out the Checkouts: Is there room at the counter for a customer to comfortably complete a transaction? Are there impulse items displayed at the checkouts to encourage add-on sales?

Walk the Aisles: Is there product spilling over into the aisles? Are there stack or dump displays blocking the main aisles? Can customers easily maneuver a shopping cart, wheel chair or stroller down the aisles?

Survey Your Merchandise Presentation: Are your displays fresh? Do they encourage customers to stop and look, and entice them to buy? Are there open spaces on the sales floor or empty spots on the shelves that need to be restocked?  Is the product “faced” (brought to the front of the shelf or hook)?  Are the displays properly dressed, fluffed and signed?

8. Cross-Merchandise to Increase Sales. Look for opportunities to cross-merchandise product all over the store. Doesn’t it make sense to send customers home with everything they need to complete a project, rather than forcing them to make another trip to the store when they don’t want to?

You can easily cross-merchandise in every product category using clip strips and J-hooks, and you can set beautiful displays on your Speed Bumps and throughout the store. Vow to never put a new item on the sales floor without first choosing items to cross-merchandise with it.

9. Remember that Merchandise does not get better with time. This is a big one. How old is the product merchandised on your store’s shelves? The scary thing is that most retailers we consult with cannot tell us when product was received, nor can they identify slow-sellers or those items that are dead on the shelves. The store’s problem then becomes decreased inventory turns, increasing cash flow problems, and soon the owner is eating out of inventory sales. From here, the downward spiral quickens.

To avoid this, you need to be disciplined. Add a code to the product labels and/or bin tickets that tell you how old the merchandise is. (We know, the computer tells you how old your stock is. Good! When was the last time you took those computer reports to the sales floor to find all the old stuff? Last year? Never? What are you waiting for?)

Here’s the problem: You buy merchandise that you like and you’re certain that customers will love it, too. Big mistake. Not everyone likes the same things; that’s why you have to think like a professional buyer. We’ve both been retail buyers at some point in our careers, and we both had to buy merchandise that we didn’t like – but our customers did.

10. Let Your Lions Roar!  Are your store associates all reading from the same page in the same book that you are reading from? Each associate brings a unique talent to your store but you have to let them use it. Get them hyper-involved in store operations. We’ve seen hundreds of great “associate ownership” examples where store programs, operations, promotions, merchandising, and more have been turned over to associates. When looked upon as more than a body who can fog a mirror or ring a register, these associates have demonstrated an ability to perform tasks, introduce profit-producing ideas, and encourage others to work with customers in ways that would make any retailer proud.

You know why this works? Letting your lions – your associates – roar works because they know that you believe enough in them to let them try.  If they fail, talk about what could have been done differently and then they move on. A trust, no, a sense of ownership overtakes the associate and they continually strive to do more for the store.

A renewed emphasis on these 10 things will help you combine a unique customer experience with great customer service, critical in a tough retail economy. They’ll do something else as well: Build positive word of mouth – the number one thing that brings new customers to your store.

(Editor's Note: Meetings & Conventions magazine took a survey of meeting planners asking them to name their favorite speakers/keynote presenters – and Kizer & Bender make the list, along with such luminaries as Dr. Stephen R. Covey, Mike Ditka, Bill Gates, Rudy Giuliani, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jay Leno, Colin Powell, and others. To read previous columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)

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