Retailing : The Quiet Revolution
Published in Retail Magazine

While driving through the shopping areas, or walking down M G Road, Brigade Road, Commercial Street in Bangalore, I find that these areas have changed dramatically in the last few years. I remember walking down these roads that had small shops, gaudy windows, dimly lit stores. The retailers and the staff in most cases went about their business with monotony written all over their faces.

Today the experience is different, the stores are large, the windows are artfully done, fantastic lighting that spill onto the road, lighting up the entire place. The merchandise is visible and inviting even as I walk past.

Just today walking down a suburb, I was telling my wife that off late we seem to be drawn into these beautiful stores and end up buying merchandise especially garments which at most times we can do without. I look into my wardrobe and find that I have upwards of 70 shirts and about 20 trousers. If I do not buy a single garment for the next 3-4 years, I would not run out of clothes, barring off-course if I put on obscene quantities of weight.

Itís not simply the shopping areas in Bangalore that are looking different. In the course of my travel across various metros and other smaller cities, the scenario is the same. Be it Chandigarh, Lucknow, Ahmadabad, Pune or Cochin, the retail mania has taken over. In each one of these cities the shoppers are being lured in with fabulous images and getting tempted to buy merchandise that they would not have a few years back.

We are in the throes of a retail-centric society with large disposable incomes. The low rates of bank interest are getting the people to spend more rather than save. It is the age of retailing, and it seems to have exploded in our faces. I no longer go to a kirana store but to a supermarket,..... I no longer go to a medical shop but to a medical boutique,.I no longer go to any shop to buy but to a mall.

A few years back when our daughter was very young, she would want to go out to eat French fries and something to drink. Now she demands to go to this large format store for an outing so that she can look at some knick-knacks, play around un-hindered with a few hundred toys and have a burger with some cold coffee from their internal cafe. It has exploded in our faces all right.

So, what gets the people to go these places?

 The Basic Ingredients

Walking into any of these fantastically done up stores, I am constantly amazed by them. They take my breath away. I walked into this large store and headed for the menís counter to simply have a look at a few shirts. The sheer variety blew my mind. There were over 30 brands vying for my attention in every size, colour and design. I saw the wovens as well as the knits and straight away wanted to own at least a dozen.

In the meantime my wife was looking at some clothes for herself and did not emerge from the shop floor for over 2 hours. She was swamped with as much of variety as I was. Our daughter had busied herself in picking up a few toys, some cards and a couple of cassettes.

What got us to pick all of these and spend this kind of time there?

Itís near the heart of the city, close to some of the better restaurants, the theatres and other entertainment places. We invariably can get a parking space, or there is valet parking facility. The place has all the merchandise that one is looking for, is visible and the pricing is reasonable. It has all the basic ingredients or letís say the Ďhygiene factorsí that get customers to go back to a place like this.

√ artful selection of merchandise
√ attractive displays
√ sheer variety
√ fantastic ambience
√ right location
√ fetching promotions
√ right price
√ eye catching advertising
√ sophisticated information system to ensure th at all merchandise is made available

Now is this all the reason for us to go to places like these?

 The People Dimension

We moved on to the billing counter and were asked by the billing clerk if we were privilege card members of the store, which we were. She proceeded to bill and entered our card number so that the points for the purchase would accrue to us. In the meantime I had noticed that it being the holiday season, there were a few customers ahead of us who were redeeming some coupons. I asked her about the same. She told me that it was for the privileged customers for the points they had accumulated. The redeemable coupons were sent to them to redeem their points. I asked her about my coupons. She was unable to tell me as to why I had not received them. She however sent me off to a customer care desk.

At the customer care desk the first thing I noticed was that it was not manned. We waited to get the attention of the customer care executive. Finally having got her attention I asked her about my redeemable coupon. She immediately got on to her computer system and proceeded to spend a lot of time in getting my details. After that she got on to the phone to make some enquiries, and finally got back saying that for some reason my name had been missed, and I would get the coupons in a few days. However at this moment they had a promotion going and I did not want to miss out on the freebies. She was unable to help. So I walked out in displeasure. A perfectly lovely outing had been ruined.

I find that in spite of the great strides we have made in the hygiene factors, we are still lacking in the softer aspects of business. This aspect is all to do with the store staff or the people part of the business. As in my experience above, I find that every large format store or a mall in our country is doing fine when it comes to what I call the brick-and-mortar part of the business. But most often than not the people part of the business is given a short shrift.

In every retail store that I visit in the course of my shopping as also in my professional capacity as a consultant and trainer, I find that the greatest care is taken about the merchandise on display. The displays are done well by very knowledgeable professionals. There are gigantic budgets set aside for the interiors, designer dresses for the retail staff, with no stones left unturned, to build the right ambience for the customers to romp in, as should be the case.

The retailers are obsessed with that part of their business. Canít blame them for it, as that is the part of business they can control. The people part of business is the one, which is hard because there is absolutely no way one can control it. This in fact is that part of business which I call the motivating factor- the other main reason for customers to frequent a store.

Every time I go back to the stores that I frequent, I always find fresh faces serving in the store. There is nothing wrong in that, only that most of them are extremely raw and have very little knowledge both in terms of merchandise as well as customer handling. I have seen customers gesticulating in despair, getting irritable, shouting, and at times walking out in a huff. I have seen the storeowner and/or the manager trying to placate the customers, but most often than not the customer has had enough.

When asked about this phenomenon, the stock answer the retailers and/ or the managers give is that it's difficult to retain the people at the shop floor level. They are trying everything possible in terms of the remuneration, incentives etc., but it's not enough. I believe that the reasons for this may simply not be in the monetary aspects, though at their level a difference of a few hundred rupees may seem a lot. The real problem is that the store assistants have never really been a priority for the retailer. It has always been believed that if you have the place, the merchandise, the advertising and the promos right, the rest will follow automatically.

The funny part is that this is not the case. Any number of things can go wrong if the store staff is not a priority too. Let us look at some very seemingly insignificant things that go wrong:

  • Customer care staff obsessed with folding and stacking the merchandise,thereby forgetting the basic rule of welcoming a customer
  • Shouting or calling each other across the aisle
  • Unable to answer customer queries
  • Not sure about the product availability
  • Not informed about the promotion
  • Unsure about the pricing
  • Quoting rules when not able to handle customer objections
  • Delay in billing
  • Not listening

I can go on and on and on....

In this competitive environment where the customers loyalty is not something that can be taken for granted, its only natural that utmost care is taken to retain them. In spite of all the hoopla that the retailers are dishing out, customer loyalty is something that still eludes them.

Such being the case, how do we build customer loyalty?

 Power of the shop floor assistant

Let us look at what an excellent shop floor assistant does in the store. Simply put they are the people who run the show, and are the most important assets of the retail business. They are the face of the store, for they:

√ help to build emotional links between the store, the merchandise and the customers
√ help to build relationship with the customers, in this world full of generic products
√ artful selection of merchandise
√ are the ones who are nudging and cajoling the customers into seeing, feeling, tasting,smelling and trying the merchandise
√ are the ones who are interacting with them and listening to them
√ are the ones who are performing out there, keeping the interest of the customers alive
√ are cheering the customers all along
√ are celebrating with the customers
√ are the ones who lend character to and are the soul of the store.

It is they who provide those Moments Of Happiness/ Delight and get the customers back to the store. Every time I buy, I go to the store where I get the store assistant who does all of the above and so do millions of other customers.

 The Quiet Revolution

There is this small retail store in the suburbs well known to me. A couple of week's back he came over and asked me if I could take some time out and speak to his staff. He was afraid that his staff is presently restive and has given him indications that they are in the process of moving on to fresh pastures. This was the same person who a year back had no problems in recruiting fresh people every few months. He has come to realize that if he has to retain his business and grow exponentially, he will have to retain his people.

I believe that more and more retailers are realizing the same. They are today willing to set aside budgets not only for interiors, but also for training and other activities, which will help them to retain their people. They have realized that:

√ it is difficult to retain good shop floor assistants
√ it is difficult to train new people
√ the customers are becoming finicky
√ the customers are leaving and moving on to fresh stores

This brings back memories of my father, a retailer himself, that if you have to survive you have to ensure that people continuously come back to your store to shop. The only way that can happen is to show them that you are interested in them walking in, and then you have to put on your show for them to applaud.

Yeah!!! The Quiet Revolution in Retailing is onÖÖÖ

- Jatinder Mohan

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