Retail professionals and customers struggle with complex emotional feelings more today than ever before. The sense of unrest that penetrates American lives, tech and Internet obsessions, and that ever-fleeting-hard-to-capture personal focus are, perhaps, the greatest offenders. What can retailers do to combat the fright, fatigue, and fragile focus that plague their customers?
Americans readily admit they want a safe, comfortable environment, but they don’t want to be hindered as they go about their daily activities. They do not want an armed guard in every boutique or store they enter, but they do want a general feeling of safety. If the surrounding neighborhood is beginning to deteriorate, shoppers may feel less safe and seek out other locations to shop. A report of heightened terrorist activity may keep shoppers at home or at least away from major shopping centers. While political unrest and terrorism are out of a business owner’s control, other aspects of safety are not.
Safe environment implies safety from catastrophic events like fire, for example. Of course, you can’t prevent every disaster, but you can give your store an advantage. It is imperative that entries and exits be clean and clear at all times. Trash should be promptly removed from the store in clear plastic bags and placed inside designated waste bins. Fire and police responders listed trash removal and clear exits as needed improvements to businesses time after time. Strive to keep all the entrances and exits free from clutter. Doors designated to be locked during business hours should be kept locked (and checked from time to time throughout the day); doors designated for customers should be open and welcoming.
To combat other insecurities, work with local police and first responders in the event of an emergency. Be active, flexible and calm. The time to plan for emergencies is during calm times. Print out your disaster plan, more than one copy, and keep it handy so that no one will have to try to look for the plan or try to determine what to do or how to do it during a crisis. Include the store’s physical address and simple directions to the store so that a stressed, frightened person could read this and not be forced to recite it from memory while rattled. Have flashlights on hand. In emergencies working flashlights make people feel calmer and more in control. If you haven’t checked the batteries lately, do so now.
Another concern shoppers and retailers share is cyber security. Data breaches continue to erode consumer confidence and brand reputation. Any data breach poses a real risk to customer confidence and store profit. It’s worth mentioning that active security and compliance to security are not the same thing. Since PCI DSS compliance can be a long and complex procedure, many see PCI DSS compliance as active security. While compliance does improve security to some extent, compliance is obeying the law; active security denotes an active defense-a special respect for and special treatment of information be it digital or hard copy.
Actions for data defense include an up-to-date internet security program and firewall, PCI DSS compliance (as a minimum), limited access for third parties, special care with hard copy, etc.
Even though technology generally improves our lives, many Americans have become slaves to computers, cell phones, and tablets. Smartphones are almost a constant disruption. Frequent gatherings show clusters of people punching away in their virtual world while they eat or shop in close proximity, but they are not talking to each other-they are involved with their “virtual worlds.” According to PEW research, users check their smartphones an average of 110 times a day, set them beside their plates while eating, and even check them in the bathroom. A decade ago no one had a smartphone. Now 46% of smartphone users say their device is something they “can’t live without.” 93% of adults age 18 to 29 admit to using their phone to avoid being bored, and 47% say they rely on their devices to avoid talking to others and to communicate with friends.
To further muddy the waters, the shopping experience no longer begins when customers walk through the door. Now shopping begins with a Google search on a personal devise, followed for a search of product and store reviews. This is followed by posting to a social networking site to get the opinion of friends and family. When a customer walks into the store, the shopping experience may be nearing its conclusion. For store personnel, it is time to act, to close the deal.
However, store professionals are frequently viewed as the interruption to the shopping experience rather than the completion or answer phase. Picture two customers out for an afternoon of shopping, talking at each other while focused on their mobile devises. It takes well-informed, people-skilled sales professionals to insert themselves into the conversation, give assistance and close the sale. Sales personnel must be well-trained and each one needs to be interested in the customers. Their focus must be entirely on the customers or they will miss opportunities.
Social Media “Addiction”
Then there is social media. It’s become a habit for many, requiring a lion’s share of the day’s attention for others. 28% of iPhone users check their social media channels before getting out of bed in the morning. 18% of social media users say they can’t go more than a few hours without checking out what’s happening on their favorite social media sites. This would be “down time” but now micro-moments with social networking have robbed people of even those short periods of rest.
So, what can a retailer do? You have no control over how much time a customer may spend on social media but you can establish a relationship with your customers on social media. You need to be where your customers are. Ask your customers what social networking sites they frequent and be sure to post regularly. Generally, 1 or 2 posts weekly are good for Facebook. Keep it short and use pictures. Twitter requires more effort needing multiple posts per day. However, the key is consistency in whatever social sites you choose.
Finally consider your customers shopping experience. It may have begun several days before a customer visits your shop-someone wants a new something, unique and flashy. The customer performs an online search. Next they will consult with friends on social networking, get their thoughts and input, study on-line reviews of various products and stores and, finally, come to the store to touch, feel, see and hear. Your store is a stage for their enjoyment. The store needs to pop with color and feature tantalizing displays to draw the eye. Re-dress mannequins weekly pairing different items together, especially those slow moving items. Frequently customers cannot imagine how to wear something or what to partner it with; how you dress the mannequins will teach them and spur on their imaginations making your merchandise more enjoyable.
Since customers are looking for the unique, be sure that you stock some products that are less well known. Try a new vendor or 2 at market or visit a different market to increase ideas and try something different. If you carry the same choices as other local stores, you may place yourself in a price war to win customers’ attention. The independent retailer generally cannot win a price war.
Shoppers and retailers alike are forced to navigate with a perceived time crunch hanging over them. Reality allows all people to have the same 24 hours in each day and 7 days in each week, but how people use their time leaves much open to interpretation. Is the time well-used or wasted? Some people always get done what they need to and enjoy leisure time. Others may feel overwhelmed with what “needs to be done” that is always left undone. However, no matter if the time stress is real or imagined, it is an interruption to shoppers that retailers must overcome.
The best way to overcome a time issue is to study the shopping experience your store offers. Is it fun? Is it easy? Do your customers feel connected to your store? Remember, your store is a stage to entertain, teach and entice. People make time for things they want to do and enjoy doing. Make your store enjoyable, an on-going party, a fun event to celebrate.
Since the economic recession of 2008, retailers have dealt with customers’ urgent desire to reduce debt and establish savings. Although more people are currently employed and wages are slowly increasing, the added income is not being spent at shops and boutiques, but applied to existing debt or to savings accounts. Millennials are of a different mindset from Baby Boomers-they tend to want vacations, entertainment or dining out but not things. Capitalize on this by helping with your customers’ plan for the events in their lives. Provide information on comfortable travel, vacation sites where your logo was spotted (on a cap or tee), packing advise, etc. Partner your store with a local independent restaurant. Be creative. Give your customers a reason to visit your store. Keep merchandise new and exciting. Is there new and unique merchandise for them to see each time they visit? If not, you may be losing their interest and their focus. Be sure to entice customers to visit with new merchandise, in-store events, friendly sales staff and great customer service.
Life is hectic and evolving. There is a constant battle being waged for customer focus and there is no quick fix, nor is there a single fix for this on-going problem. Just as each store is unique, so is each solution. If one idea doesn’t work, try something else. It is important to commit each idea to writing, either on computer, devise or paper so that you can return to think about what went wrong and what went right. Therefore, plan; then be firm, fixed and flexible.
This article was written by Linda Carter, President of The Retail Management Advisors, a retail consulting firm whose mission is to help independent retailers survive and thrive. With more than 30 years experience helping independent retailers, she has the experience to help you too.