Rod Laver, the Australian Tennis Legend once said, “The time your game is most vulnerable is when you’re ahead..."
How quickly is the retail landscape changing? It seems that everyone is telling us that change has never been quicker. I am not sure how true this, but the one indisputable fact is that change is upon us. This change comes in the form of international business crossing boarders both on-line, and now in our shopping strips and malls. So with this cycle of powerful retailers hitting our Aussie shores, what is the number one defence that local retails can initiate?
To answer this question, I took inspiration from a recent trip to LA – the home of extremes. There are big gas guzzling monster trucks driving alongside eco-warrior electric cars. There is the extreme luxury and wealth of the Hollywood and Beverley Hills Celebs living next to droves of homeless in the adjacent streets. But, amongst all of this I noticed one clear distinction. The culture of service among the successful retailers wherever my wife and I dined and shopped.
From a customer point of view, it starts with the overall end-to-end branding experience that you receive. A strong identity that connects the product to the people, to the location, and the entire experience. An example of this was when we visited a super-healthy café near Venice Beach. LA is the birth place of the Superfood phenomenon, and I was blown away by their execution. Calm and rejuvenation were a part of the dialogue, but they went deeper than this. Their purpose was to engage the consumer with the art of connection. They used some creative ways to instill this branding like the naming of items of the menu – but they took it further. The WIFI connection password was iamconnected. To add to this our server took our order and left us with an exchange I will never forget:
Waiter: “Thank you for your order. Would you like to know today’s question?”
Me: “Yere, sure, why not…”
Waiter: “What is your mission?”
Before we could react, he was on his way to file our order and get on with serving the other customers. We looked at each other. Thought. Looked at each other again. Smiled. And then, something great happened. We started talking about the question. What he meant by it. What our mission was. What our mission for the day was. What our overall mission was.
Our actual mission is irrelevant so I won’t bore you with the discussion that ensued. The genius is that this café was all about health, and connecting with yourself and others. In asking this question, we were immediately engaged in a thought provoking and fun way. From a branding point of view, I was left extremely excited. Brilliant! Simply brilliant!!! The overall experience was aligned and faultless. The delivery was spot-on. The effect was memorable.
Now, this sort of thing can sound gimmicky, but when all aspects of your customer experience are aligned, you move from gimmicks to something else – strength. Having brand alignment in the customer experience across all aspects of your business adds up to a very strong brand presence. You become memorable, and your customers become advocates. This results in real business growth.
It is on this trip that it struck me! All of the strong brands in Australia (small and big), and all of the internationals coming to our shores all have strength in end-to-end branding. A strong Brand Image. A Brand Experience. As business leaders, we need to be ultra-critical of every aspect of our customer-touch points. Are they aligned? Do our staff understand them? Do our staff know how to deliver them? Are there any weaknesses along our customer service chain? Does our on-line match our off-line? Do we stand out? Are we using the best language?
In driving this brand strength, it is vitally important to also make sure we deliver on our brand and product promise. Another key question to ask is: are we style over substance? There is nothing worse than having a beautifully presented space and brand, but then the end result is a poor-quality product or poor perceived value (by the way, we experienced this many times in LA also – I question if these businesses will still be around by the time we return). In an age of Insta and photo filtering and infographics, the aesthetic of our branding is so important, but copy-and-paste the latest trend at your peril. If it does not match the overall goal or mission of your business and your people, then it may do more harm than good to your business.
I feel that in the coming years we are going to see large international monster companies come to our shores and successfully navigate the tough Australian market (unlike those that failed previously, i.e. Hollister, Starbucks, and more recently Topshop). The local business that takes their end-to-end branding to a memorable and sophisticated level will be the ones that stand up and push forward in the new Australian business environment, no matter how quickly change is occurring in the landscape.
We all know what Einstein said about the definition of insanity. And, retail businesses it is very common for people to remain at the same size or same level of profitability year-in-year-out. Every year brings with it similar ebbs and flows, as well as similar results.
This is what I have phrased The Natural Settling Point (NSP).
Here is the formula:
Location + Skills + Personality + Loyal Follower + Default Activities = NSP
There is a lot to digest in this formula, and hopefully it is clear to see how many variables there are to play with to pull yourself and your business out of the NSP you may currently be in. There is no need to pick each aspect apart, but this formula does hint at what to do to bust through your current settling point. Some tried and tested options are listed below.
1. UPSKILL YOURSELF (AND YOUR TEAM)
Plan a self-development activity every 6 months for each person in the team starting with yourself. It may be as simple as reading a book on a topic that will help you implement a new initiative. Or you could attend an evening or one-day seminar. A weekend conference. Maybe enrol in an online training course. Or, maybe you are ready to go for something bigger like a certificate course. Whatever you choose to do, the name of the game is to pick the topic carefully and be sure to set a trackable goal off the back of the education you have received. This will ensure that the training pays for itself (many times over hopefully) and encourages positive change in the business. The same rules apply to team members.
2. SCRUTINISE THE USUAL MARKETING
Is your marketing working? Really? Maybe they are… or maybe they need to be re-energised, or revamped, or maybe they need a major overhaul. One of the most common reasons retail business owners do not do meaningful marketing promotions is that they feel it is a waste of time and money. It is very common for people to give up before they have started, and revert back to old school methods, and activities which end up being quite ineffectual. At the very least, calculate the costs and sales from all of the past activities and if they are performing poorly, then stop doing them all together. No activity is better than bad activity – it costs less time, less money, and less heartache (none of which are going spare for most of us).
3. A LITTLE FROM EVERYONE ADDS UP TO A LOT
If you have a small team, say its yourself and two others, and each of you increased your own sales, or average spend by 10%, that would add up to a big dent in sales results. If it was achieved over a full year, then the NSP would be smashed to bits. Let’s look at it another way. What if the weakest sales day of the week was focused on to make it a little stronger, or a product or product range was focused on to gain extra sales? In a salon business I worked with, the retail sales were hovering at approximately $50 per week. There were reasons for this, but it was quite weak. We set up a plan including an incentive, education from the Sales Rep, and weekly performance tracking by the manager on product sales. If the team achieved their incentive 80% of the time, we would generate over $500 in sales a week, and over a 14 week period (which was the remainder of the calendar year at the time), this would bring in an extra $6300. A big impact from a very small change, which the team ended up achieving. It also showed us how much money the business was “leaving on the table” so to speak. What is the little change you can make in your business that would add up to a lot?
4. GET A BIT WEIRD
This one makes everyone really nervous! I know, I get nervous myself, and for good reason. It is scary as hell! Its scary because there is all types of risk – financial, or even reputational. Sometimes, we’ve got to be open to doing something a little crazy. Make a concerted effort to try a different approach, or have some fun with a topic or an event. Only by taking some risks can we find unique and brilliantly interesting ways to move our business forward. Because there is risk involved in this, it is important to mitigate the risks by doing lots of research, only trialling things before committing to longer terms, and pledging low resources to an activity initially. Go for it, but there is no need to take huge leaps of faith packed with high levels of risk!!!
5. WHATEVER YOU DO, GO ALL IN!
Small half-baked initiatives and actions need to be banished. If we are truly going to leave the NSP behind once and for all, then doing many things in a mediocre way will need to be completely cut out. New Year’s Eve is not the only time to make a stand and commit to new beginnings. We can decide to do this today. Commit to a structure and work within it every day. Aim to be consistent before everything else. If you lead an activity 100%, you have a very good chance of getting the team to follow.
To wrap this up, it is wise to choose only one of these actions to implement at a time. Trying to do too much will probably land you back inside the NSP. Also, no matter what you do, there will be ups and downs, so be willing to adapt. Tweaking and adjusting as we go is not always easy, but will often be necessary.
The one guarantee is that that NSP is distinct in all of our businesses, and if we can recognise it there is a good chance that it can be left behind with some new and exciting activities.
The common perception is that visual merchandising (VM) is about making your products and your store look nice, but I assure you that there is a lot more to it than this. It is healthy to view your VM as a hub that links directly to all of your other main business departments. These usually include Stock Control, Marketing, Customer Service, Human Resources & Professional Development, Housekeeping, and of course Sales. Understanding that VM directly links with other functions within your business starts to open up new levels of creativity for you while making it easier to justify further resources on your VM and in-store animation.
VM is also a key way to pull customers over the threshold into your store and assist you to deliver a high customer service level with resulting sales increases. Here are my top five tips to bring this to fruition:
1. Promotional Displays
Visualise your store as you walk in the main entrance, and ask yourself what the first thing is that your eyes are drawn to? In retail, we want the first attention grabber in our store to be the promotional product or range of the week/month/season. It is critical that we have an engaging promotional display front-and-centre as a shopper enter our space. This not only creates interest for a shopper to stop walking and turn into your store, but it also excites the shopper – no matter if they are new to the store or a returning customer. The golden rules are to use a New Product, a Seasonal Product, a Topical Product, or a Hero Product from your range. To ensure freshness change this display regularly. This promotional display should also link to the display in your window.
2. Prime Shelf Real Estate
There are Hot and Cold Zones in our stores, with a Hot Zone representing an area of high foot traffic. You may know why people gravitate to this area, or it may be a mystery. Either way, be sure to recognise your Hot Zone, and the shelving units within this zone. This zone is generally the first-place shoppers will look and want to browse after they have enjoyed your promotional display at the entrance of your store. You may designate a shelf at eye level, or an entire bay as your Prime Shelf Real Estate. Whatever amount of space that you choose, be sure to fill it with product that matches your promotional display mentioned above. The key to this is to make it is clear that people can shop from this area. I say this as a promotional display can often be left by shoppers as they do not feel that they are allowed to shop from this area. By using the sequence of your window display, that matches your promotional display, that matches your Shelf Prime Real Estate, we have now built a slick easy to use path-to-purchase.
The way that we communicate individualised pricing is a critical part of VM. Pricing needs to visually be aligned with our branding, be sized appropriately to the products, and be easy and clear to understand. Depending on your type of retail you may use hanging tags, pricing stickers, branded labels, or shelf talkers. Whatever the pricing display is that you use be sure to take a good deal of care with careful attention to detail. Make sure pricing labels are consistent throughout the store, and to make pricing easy to read and easy to find. Let’s face it, the first question most consumers have is “how much is it?”
Premium Retail will usually not display prices, and certain retail will have pricing on lists or in menus, but no matter what pricing is relevant for your business be sure that it is brand aligned and that it is correct! There is nothing worse than getting pricing wrong and costing your business money, credibility, and resulting in a negative customer experience.
4. Negative Space
In large discount retailers and super markets, you will see products jammed in and stacked as high as possible. This signals to the consumer that the products are of a low value. In a majority of retail environments, we want to increase the value proposition of our products using VM. One of the most effective ways to do this is to use Negative Space. Negative Space is the use of gaps, or space between products. This is a clever technique that draws a shopper’s eyes to the individual products allowing the shopper to browse without working so hard while creating more interest in the shopper’s mind. Negative Space also signals to the consumer that the products are important enough to command such a generous use of space. This is where the perceived value of a product is enhanced. This technique in your layout will enhance your overall branding, and will be noticeable from the exterior of the store as consumers look in through the entrance. It can also be used in window displays.
5. Clean All Day, Every Day
This is my favourite as it is so so important. No matter how much a consumer is paying for an individual product, if it is not clean then it is not attractive to buy. The retail environment out there is ultra-competitive, so if a store is not clean and tidy, then the consumer will simply go somewhere else. Cleanliness underpins all of your VM. You may have the latest technology, the biggest screens, the flashiest lights, or the most on trend animation, but if your window and shelves are dusty, sticky, grimy, or dirty in anyway then your whole VM is undermined. My golden rules are that we clean at the beginning and end of every day, and then throughout the day constantly. Other than education and product knowledge, re-stocking the shelves and cleaning is the number one task that we all need to commit to when we have down time in-store. It is critical that everyone in the store team is contributing to this too, and that there are no exemptions. It is a team game with sales to be lost if someone is excusing themselves from cleaning. Keeping your store and products clean can be made harder if your store has an Open-Door Policy (ie. Your front doors are left wide open during trading hours). This is always a great best practice as it invites customers into your space (take that as an extra free tip!) but it will encourage dust to accumulate quicker so be aware of this in regard to directing your team to clean.
You may be a school leaver. You may be a cubicle-escapee. You may be starting the very post-trend “side hustle”, or a freelancing venture. Whatever your situation, it’s all very exciting with a large element of fear and anxiety. Recently I heard an interview with a business owner who’s venture is turning over in excess of $60m a year, and another that has over 20 000 users. Independently they both admitted that in the face of these achievements they still had times of doubt, and “weren’t sure if this thing was going to work”. There is no doubt – business is tough, and holds up a mirror to our fears. No matter how well we are doing, there are always dry spells and doubters ready to give their unwelcomed opinions at many-a-turn. So, what about when we are starting out. How do we break through and start gaining traction with no track record? You could use the Freebie Exchange – it will leave you with more than what you think.
The Freebie Exchange
What!?! You want me to give stuff away!?! At the most vulnerable time in my business, with no resources and no income you want me to just hand over my blood, sweat, and tears!?!
Yes. Yes, I do. And, I’ll show you how you will be getting extraordinary value out of the Freebie Exchange, and much much more value than the test clients you will be engaging with.
The key here is that this is an exchange. Every transaction is an exchange. For an exchange to be successful, both parties must gain good value. The value for the consumer in this case is obvious. They will receive a free product (or service) which meets their needs. But what about for you? The value for you is actually multi-tiered. Here are your 5 ways to use the Freebie Exchange to catapult your business forward from the starting blocks:
- Pick the right customers. You will pick a limited amount of people which can vary in number depending on the nature of your business, but 10 is a good solid number to use for most small businesses. It is all about the quality of these 10 that is critical. They must fit into the description of your perfect customer. That means they share the same values as you, they have a need that suits your product to the letter, and they are a pleasure to deal with. Please don’t underestimate the value of this last point – servicing the right clientele will heavily influence the profile of your future clientele and it will be a big influencer on your happiness and health within your business down the line.
- You will gain feedback which will help you make the product better. These initial customers will need to provide you with key feedback. Consider these people your test bunnies. They will help you smooth out the product design, delivery, effectiveness, and you may end up doing some drastic changes to your product after going through this process. Then you will be ready to launch to the masses with confidence that you have your product spot on.
- You will gain research that will help you with your marketing. During the feedback process with these initial customers you will gain insights into the customer expectations, needs, experience, and overall perspective. The insight will be invaluable. There will be certain phrases and comments from these test bunnies that will end up being pure gold. This is where inspiration strikes and game changers appear.
- Word of mouth. Yere, yere, all businesses rely on word of mouth. I know this one… Well, the one thing that annoys me about business owners that say they get most of their clients from word of mouth is that they hardly do anything to accelerate the rate of client acquisition through this avenue. Your initial clients are getting the freebie. One of the exchanges is that if they are happy with what they get out of the product, they must tell the world about it. This could be a casual thing, but I highly recommend that you set up a link, or a coupon, or an offer that is easy for the test client to distribute to everyone they know that could benefit from your product. On top of this, be sure to let the test client know the market value of your product, and that they are in line for further freebies based on how many clients you gain through their recommendations.
- Re-sell through reciprocation. It is the worst kept secret in small business. Give value and attention to someone (without having a desperate air about your offer!) and they will feel indebted to you. So much so, that when you re-sell to them at the market price, there is a part of them that will buy because they feel that they owe you their loyalty. And, if they have gained good results through using your product, then why shouldn’t they? I have test clients of my own, that to this day are on-going loyal users of my service because we have built a great relationship, and they gain great results from my service. This is the ultimate reward from the Freebie exchange, and speaks volumes of what you’re doing and how you are delivering.
A key addition to this, is that you can discount instead of giving your product away whole. I mean, there is no harm in gaining a few bucks from your test clients… is there? Well, usually there is not, but be very careful to ensure your product is not devalued. A one-off freebie can instill value in a product more than a discount. Either way, it comes back to point number one – pick your test clients carefully. And be sure to communicate your offer and expectations to them clearly and specifically. Once you have agreement, you are on your way to building your empire.