The Age of Retail Enlightenment

Historians look back to the enlightenment as a period of time where Western European philosophy, arts, technology and indeed society took a giant leap forward. Scholastic titans and dogmatists disappeared while new thinkers and pragmatists emerged. A similar transformation is happening in retail, and indeed society. It is happening right now and will only grow in intensity until it completely eradicates the old order. Now is the time to re-think the purpose and modus operandi of brick-and-mortar retailing. Let us start with a few questions.

What is retail space for?

Retail space does not primarily exist to sell goods (not any more). It exists to create a superlative customer experience. Prominent e-tailers are opening brick-and-mortar stores right now and they are not doing this for old times’ sake. Retail space allows a retailer to service a customer (e.g.: try on clothes, touch and feel, interact…) in a way no website can. The car company Tesla takes the model even further. Tesla has stores where they don’t actually sell anything at all! While Tesla is doing this to comply with regulatory requirements (a manufacturer is not allowed to sell its own cars), the model is a huge endorsement of the brick-and-mortar retail model. Don’t believe the hype, brick-and-mortar retail is not dead. The purpose and modus operandi of retail space is, however, in the middle of a significant transformation.

What is customer service for?

Remember the good old days of customer service? They are back in style as today’s informed customer has come to expect and demand it! Customer service is about asking the customer questions, finding out what she needs, inform and delight her. Do you walk past a kid’s cookie stand because you can find cookies cheaper at Walmart? No. As a retailer you don’t even have to be cute, just genuine and likeable, to close a sale. If you want to sell, start helping.

What are associates for?

Not selling! Whenever I enter an Apple or Microsoft store, I get the sort of superlative customer service that should serve as a benchmark for the whole retail industry. Case in point: I recently walked into a Microsoft store where the associate asked me questions about what I needed, answered mine, showed me options and seemed genuinely attentive to me, the customer. At no point did he try to sell me anything. This made a very positive impression on me. Customer service creates loyalty; it makes the brand “likeable” (in the traditional sense) which in turn drives sales.

What are standards for?

Standards don’t belong in the dusty binder no one looks at. Standards need to be communicated and validated continuously at store level. Apple trains its associates to interact with customers in a highly codified manner. This approach is said to make Apple appear caring and empathetic to customers, which in turns drives sales. Mission accomplished! Success does not happen in vacuum. Success happens when head office establishes clear customer service and merchandising standards, when those standards are communicated and thoroughly executed in store and when discrepancies are noted and corrected. E-commerce and comparison-shopping mobile apps are making it incredibly difficult for retailers whose service, presentation and standards are merely adequate. Set the bar high, communicate, verify and enforce standards and you will thrive. The enlightened retailer is a pragmatic retailer, a retailer that is primarily concerned with the customer experience and in-store execution.

The road ahead…

There are tectonic shifts taking place in the retail space. Some retailers will master the new ways of doing business and thrive. Others will perish. Now is the time to re-think the purpose and modus operandi of brick-and-mortar retailing for the way forward, the “new normal”, the age of retail enlightenment.

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