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Resuscitating Retail: Big Lessons from Big Winners

It is very easy to look at the adversity, see only doom and gloom and give up quickly. However, real winners see the opportunities behind the challenge. It may be tempting to assume that e-commerce is the new reality, but I believe retail sales still have promise. 

Let me share a story. Once, a gentleman had a beautiful bone china cup in which he would enjoy his tea, while reading his books. He relished the experience every day. It’s easy to imagine: most of us have relished a nice drink, something to read, and a few quiet moments.

One day, he accidentally dropped the china teacup and broke it. He didn’t have another cup and he was unable to find another that was as sleek and as beautiful as the one he had. He was disappointed thinking that he was never going to be able to have such a calm, relaxing experience again. Then he had an idea: he asked a master craftsman to try to fix it. The craftsman knew that he couldn’t make it look like new. He thought for a long time and finally had a clever idea. He made golden glue by adding gold powder to the adhesive and then glued the pieces together with the golden cement. The cup was even more beautiful than it was before—and unique as well. The master craftsman turned adversity into opportunity.

Truly great companies take a similar approach. Consider the Starbucks barista. People stand in line every day to buy their coffee. The baristas are trained to have the goal of ensuring the customer is completely happy. They are willing to make any variation on a drink. They are trained to build relationships with the customers and remember specific traits and preferences of each. Most of all, they are trained to respond positively to any customer dissatisfaction and to remake the order until the customer is satisfied. Human connection is a powerful thing.

Similarly, another popular store near my neighborhood is Chick-fil-A. This fried chicken restaurant stands out for true hospitality (a fast food place where waiters check in with you).  The company also values innovation. When you go at a busy time, you’ll find servers using tables to take advance order and expedite things.  Further, Chick-fil-A associates are humble, something driven by the corporate culture. One of the first things you will notice when you walk into corporate headquarters is a bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples, a pointer toward an attitude of service. The bottom line is that the whole company is focused on the objective of giving customers an unmatched and memorable experience.

The third one on my list is Domino’s Pizza. The pizza ordering process and getting status updates is so easy. They can give you exact pickup timing. Dominos has clearly figured out the customer experience is maximized when the pizza is delivered hot and when the customer sees the pizza making process. In the store, there are step stools to allow kids to step up and see the pizza being made. A big flat screen display gives instant access to order info. It's completely easy and convenient.

At the end of the day, it is all about offering a great product that appropriately solves the customer’s problem, delivering a great customer experience and building an emotional connection along the way. When that is done elegantly, consistently and in a memorable manner, everything else takes care by itself. Customers love the experience, they get value for their hard earned cash and they keep coming back. People remember how you make them feel. 

I had another experience recently at the Guitar Center near my home. I bought a guitar as a present for my daughter. It was an “open box” product with slight damage so the sales person got me a great deal, giving it to me for half price and adding a warranty onto the deal as well. My daughter loved it. In a few days, though, a string broke. I took it back to the sales guy who told me the string wasn’t covered under warranty. While we were talking, though, he found a new string, and quickly replaced it for me, even retuning the guitar for me. He charged me for the string, but nothing for his time and expertise. He also created a memorable experience for me and my daughter. We are now loyal customers.

 

In short, the secret to success for “real” retailers is to create relationships and solve problems. It’s customer service. And there’s still plenty of space for new and better solutions. For example, I am an Indian guy so my skin is brown. I have a hard time finding clothes that compliment my skin tone, since many of the products are designed for people with fairer skin. It may seem like a small problem, but wearing the right kind of clothes makes me feel great. If a clothing store could find a way to address my problem, by creating an application that would suggest clothing that suited my coloring for example, it would be a major win. And it’s not just solving a problem for me. Certainly, the world will likely have more and more people of color in the future. It’s a trend to be leveraged.

Retailers must find and address problems through innovations and then customers will flock to the stores. It’s true for clothing but it’s equally true for technology and electronics sellers. Here are a few problems I have as a consumer, that any type of retailer could address:

  1. Finding products in the store.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time looking for the product I want. Maybe the answer is a search kiosk in the front of the store, or a mobile app that would point me toward an aisle of the store.
  2. Finding products that meet specs.  I’ve mentioned clothing but the same is true for finding a technology product in a certain color or style or that offers a desired feature.
  3. Providing detailed product information.  An eatery could tell me how my meat or vegetables are sourced. An electronics store could let me know where a product could be recycled or repaired, or even offer clear comparisons between different models. The possibilities are endless.

What makes you come back to your favorite retail stores again and again? Let us know in the comments section below.

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