How Retailers can Succeed During the Holidays

HOLIDAY CHEERS OR FEARS?   How to Succeed During the Holidays and Beyond

Now that the countdown to one of the most critical holiday seasons in many years has begun, how do you feel about your performance so far?  Do you worry you bought the right merchandise?  Do you worry you bought enough or maybe even too much?  

Do you worry you paid the right price?  Do you worry it will move at a decent margin?  Do you worry you have the correct staffing strategy?  Do you worry your advertising dollars will be effective and well spent?  Do you WORRY???? Do you WORRY????  Do you SLEEP at night????  At this late date, there's no reason to drive yourself crazy worrying about the decisions you made that are pretty much “done deals” minus some minor tweaking.  Granted this past year in retail has been very scary, but you survived because you learned how to adapt unlike some of your now defunct, less fortunate, colleagues.  So now is the time to direct your nervous energy to something positive.  Just because most of the critical holiday decisions have been made, now is not the time to sit back and relax.  You don't take your foot off the gas when you're going uphill, do you?

I recently read an interesting survey conducted by NRF and would like to share the results with you.  These results were published in the NRF SmartBrief and were as of Monday, November 02, 2009.  The survey asked readers what their strategy for success will be in 2010.  The reader had to choose among five different strategies:

The emphasis will be on customer service and experience.

We will play up our “value” messaging and offer promotions.

Cut operational costs and overhead as much as possible.

The plan is to incorporate more social media into our marketing.

We will focus on reducing shrink.

All seem like reasonable strategies but one stood out above all of the others combined.  “The emphasis will be on customer service and experience” drew a whopping 56.36%!  When you think about the other four strategies, most were either product or company oriented.  In the post recession economy, the consumer is looking for more than product and even more than price.  The consumer is looking for a memorable and multifaceted experience to which they will want to return and refer their friends.  Yes, there's no denying that product and price are still important, but the discerning consumer expects exceptional service, transaction simplicity and convenience.  They want a retailer who puts the interest of the consumer first, and they will settle for nothing less.

In a recent article (October 26, 2009) published in About.com Retail Industry, the successes or lack thereof of several major US corporations were cited.  The four corporations included in the article were Amazon.com, Blockbuster, Chrysler, and eBay.  Without going into detail, Blockbuster, Chrysler, and eBay were profit, product, compensation and/or self-interest focused.  Although the top executives may have walked away with large sums of money, the companies and shareholders paid heavily in market share and profitability over the past several years.  Sounds like a familiar Wall Street scenario, doesn't it?  On the other hand, the truly insightful CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, took an entirely different approach.  He focused Amazon's total attention on the customer experience and “over the top” customer satisfaction.  When Amazon made a mistake, he acknowledged it, apologized to his customers and rectified the situation.  As a result of that focus, Amazon has experienced phenomenal growth in the midst of the most volatile retail environment of our times.  So what can we learn and better yet what can we do while we're waiting for the “holiday retail gods” to drive people to our stores?

Now that you have probably made most of your buying decisions, why not focus on providing the customer with the best possible experience they will have during the fast approaching, hectic holiday season.  Your actions must be memorable to the customer as well as sustainable after the holiday so customers will keep coming back and telling their friends.  Here are a couple of tips you might want to consider.

CREATE A STORE ATMOSTPHERE PLEASING TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. Pay extra careful attention to appearances.

Develop a plan to keep your store(s) organized and clean during holiday “crunch time” and don't forget about rest rooms and dressing rooms.   If you don't have a plan, untidiness and disorganization can easily take over.

Maintain a fresh, clean and inviting smell throughout the store.  No one likes to shop in store that smells like a locker room or a Chinese restaurant.  Provide a break room away from the sales floor where sales personnel can eat or relax out of view of the customers.

Insist on appropriate dress for your staff.  Depending on the type of store you have, the dress code may be jeans or suits.  Whatever the code, clean bodies and clean clothes are essential.  Keep supplies of breath mints or refreshers in strategic places for personnel to use.

Maintain appropriate background noise or music.  Rap does well in a hip-hop store but not so well in haute couture.

Keep in mind all the human senses when creating the atmosphere that best fits your store and customer.  You want your customer to feel comfortable, relaxed and welcome.

TRY NEW THINGS THAT WILL ENHANCE THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AND MAKE IT EASY AND FUN TO SHOP IN YOUR STORE.

IKEA has a play area for children to have fun while parents shop.

Some women's shops have a small section where men can watch a football game, have a beer or a glass of wine while the women shop.

Some stores bake cookies or make popcorn for customers to enjoy while they shop.

Perhaps you could have a drawing every hour where customers would have to be present to win.

There are all kinds of creative and exciting things you can do to create a memorable customer experience.

BE SURE YOUR MERCHANDISE IS EASY TO FIND AND EASY TO UNDERSTAND.

  • Arrange your merchandise in places where customers expect to find it.

  • When a customer finds the desired merchandise, make sure to display companion merchandise close by to increase the value of the shopping cart.

  • Don't forget to clearly mark all merchandise with price and size information so customers don't have to look for clerks who are hopefully busy closing sales with other customers.

  • If the merchandise is technical or needs further explanation, make sure that signage fully and simply explains the products' attributes.  Brookstone does this really well.  Each item has a plexiglas stand with a card explaining the item, its functionality and its price.

TRAIN, TRAIN, AND TRAIN YOUR STAFF.

Don't you hate to go into a store and be ignored by so-called sales associates?  Many sales associates ignore customers because they know they couldn't answer their questions if asked.  So rather than embarrassing themselves, they look the other way.  This is not the fault of the sales associate.  There are two major areas where sales personnel need training: customer courtesy and product knowledge.  Teach them to greet and evaluate the needs of your customers and direct those customers to the proper merchandise.

CONVERT YOUR POINT-OF-SALE TO POINT-OF-SERVICE.

Once your customer has decided to purchase, the transactional part of the customer experience should be flawless.  The actual transaction is the final step in the buying process and, if it is burdensome and aggravating, that memory sticks especially when the customer is stressed with holiday shopping.

Make sure you ask the customer how they viewed their shopping experience and tell them how much you appreciated their business.  Accept criticism where it is due and apologize when appropriate.

Give them a “bounce-back” coupon or some other customer loyalty perk that can be used for their next visit.  Reasonable time-dated rewards can dramatically increase repeat business.

Reward them for referring a friend.

Focusing on the customer experience does produce results in this hyper-competitive retail environment.  In spite of Amazon's huge success, most retailers will still be focused on products, mere survival, and daily profits.  By focusing on providing exceptional customer experience, Jeff Bezos from Amazon has proven that profits will follow in the worst economy in decades.  It won't cost you anything to give it a try.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Don Capman is President and co-owner of J.D. Associates, one of the largest distributors of
retail POS software in North America. With Retail Pro, Microsoft RMS and QuickBooks Point of Sale in the company portfolio, J.D. Associates offers retail POS software solutions for specialty retailers. He can be reached at don.capman@jdapos.com

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