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.

Sliced Tomatoes

While vacationing, my wife and I had the occasion to dine at several restaurants that we have enjoyed over the years. Something happened at two of them that was somewhat of a surprise. Here’s what occurred. At the first restaurant we had been told by a nearby merchant that a particular dish was extremely good. Naturally we wanted to partake, only to be told by the waiter that this item was only available on the bar menu. I told him that we were willing to pay an upcharge if necessary in order to enjoy this seemingly delectable delight. No dice was his reply. He went on to spin a tale about how the kitchen was too small to serve both the bar and the dining room. The explanation was not remotely plausible.

We had enjoyed a scrumptious dinner at the second restaurant and were attended to by a very outgoing server. The entrée I selected had a side dish that I didn’t prefer and I asked if some sliced tomatoes could be substituted. This was done without issue and the service was impeccable. Roll the tape forward a week with a different server but the same entrée. Again, I asked for sliced tomatoes and was very abruptly informed that the chef was not going to accommodate my request. This server (a bit on the snippy side to begin with) said that there had been quite a conversation with the chef about such a substitution and he wasn’t going to slice any tomatoes.

In both situations, the desires of the customer were secondary to the desires of the restaurants. In both cases, I wrote social media reviews pointing out that the operational efficiencies of the eateries were apparently more important than offering a memorable customer experience. And as I thought about it more I realized how often this approach is taken by many businesses. But why?

We’re in the day and age of creating customer experiences. No longer is it just about selling a product or service. I’ve advocated for years that we should avoid “selling to” customers (product-centric) and help customers “buy from” (customer-centric). Helping people buy something provides us with an opportunity to create a more tailored and pleasant experience – something they might mention in a positive manner when speaking with friends and family . . . or posting on social media. Both restaurants failed the test. The food was so-so at the first establishment but truly amazing at the second. Yet, the wonderful cuisine was overshadowed by the negative experience of a chef who apparently was throwing a hissy fit for unknown reasons. I would have certainly understood if the tomatoes were of poor quality and that had been explained to me. And while the chef may have had a limited supply of tomatoes to be reserved for other dishes that included tomatoes, there is a fabulous modern day invention called a “grocery store.”

I eat breakfast regularly at a restaurant where the proprietor often makes a run to the nearby grocery store when she runs low on a particular food item. The last thing she wants to tell a customer is that she is out of something and can’t accommodate a request. The upshot of all of this is to pause for a moment and look at our own operations. Are there things we can do to make sure we are creating a positive customer experience? Do we have systems and processes that are designed to make our operations more efficient and profitable, but could potentially stand in the way of putting a smile on the customer’s face? Are we a slave to rigidity and adherence to a very precise “recipe?” Perhaps we should consider applying the “reasonableness test.” In other words, is the request of a customer reasonable or not? If it is, we should accommodate it to create the desired experience. If I had asked for Baked Alaska, that probably wouldn’t have passed the “reasonableness test.” But sliced tomatoes?

Entrepreneurs can differentiate themselves by working to create a memorable customer experience. This can be accomplished by developing a reasonableness test when it comes to customer requests.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 61 – The Zone of Doom.

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.