What’s Wrong With Retail?

During 2020, 12,200 retail stores closed, up from 9,300 store closures in 2019. Another 5,700 retailers closed their doors in 2018, and 8,000 closed in 2017. That is a total of 35,200 stores over a four-year timeframe. Experts have offered several reasons for this trend including the growth of e-commerce as well as the opening of too many stores in years past. Certainly, these are likely factors in the struggles experienced by the retail industry. But there are some basic and fundamental reasons as well. Entrepreneurs would do well to pay attention to how these basics and fundamentals could have an impact on every business – whether retail or otherwise.

We recently traveled several miles to a large national furniture home store in search of a particular kind of lamp we wanted to purchase. When we arrived, there was a grand total of one salesperson on the showroom floor and he was working with a family that appeared to be pondering a significant purchase. I cannot say that I blame him for focusing all his attention on a customer that would earn him a very nice commission. Unfortunately, he did not even acknowledge us or try to find another salesperson to assist us. We waited approximately 20 minutes and then I began wandering the store and came across another salesperson who was arranging a display. He didn’t even ask if I needed help until I finally told him we had questions and would appreciate speaking with a salesperson. I then showed him the lamps that were exactly what we needed and asked him to ring up the sale and we would take the lamps home with us. Not so fast, he responded. The store did not keep lamps in stock and would have to order them. I asked if we could just buy the floor models and he said no. If they did that, they would not have anything to display on the floor. He then informed me that it would be about four weeks before the lamps would be delivered. Disappointed, we told him that we would order them online from a different supplier which we did – and had them three days later.

A friend of ours related another story which she said she has encountered several times. She recently visited a large national department store chain in a local mall. As happens so often, there were no salespeople on the floor, and she had to go looking for them – sound familiar? Once found, the salespeople (remember, this happened on numerous occasions) were uncaring and unknowledgeable. She wanted to try on different clothing items only to find the dressing rooms filthy to the point that she did not want to use them.

Finally, we periodically patronize a large national household goods store. This chain purportedly sells everything under the sun. And yet, we always leave with at least one or two very common items remaining on our shopping list. Why? Because the items are not in stock for one reason or another. We have tracked down sales associates who tell us that if it is not on the shelves, they do not have it. This was understandable during COVID-19, but the problem was occurring well before the pandemic.

So, let’s review. A large retailer does not carry floor items in stock so that customers can take their purchases with them. In fact, a customer must wait longer to receive such items from the store than if they make the purchases through an e-commerce site. Several large, national retailers do not have adequate sales associates available to help customers. And, in several cases the sales associates they do have are of no help. Finally, cleanliness in a few cases is apparently not on anyone’s “To Do” list.

Let’s be clear. There are many retail establishments that are doing it correctly. Home Depot and Lowe’s have plenty of friendly and knowledgeable sales associates who are instantly available to assist. This is not an indictment of the retail industry as a whole. But the fact that so many large, national chains are falling short is baffling – especially considering the existential threat posed by e-commerce.

As entrepreneurs we should understand how critical the customer experience is to our success. This is certainly an obvious statement; so why are so many businesses continuing to fall short with the basics and fundamentals? I am sure as you read this that you can relate your own examples of the disappointing encounters you have had in the retail sector. Just remember to make sure that your customers aren’t saying the same things about your business.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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