Retailing-Some Good News

Under the title, Retail Industry Group Predicts Small Rise in Holiday Sales, Sandra M. Jones writes in the Chicago Tribune that The International Council of Shopping Centers is predicting a small rise in holiday sales over last year.

While the percentage is small, it’s still an increase and the fact that an industry group is offering a glimmer of hope for the fourth quarter is good news. In a world where the media is constantly offering self-fulfilling prophesies of gloom and doom we’ll take what we can get.

MTS certainly doesn’t have the resources to conduct an in-depth survey of consumer trends.  I can tell you that nobody I know has canceled Christmas this year. I’ve always found that those who are enthusiastic about the celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah, or any of the other year-end holidays will find a way.

I’m also hearing from my retailing friends that business may not be great, but it is good.  What the pundits fail to mention is that these surveys almost always lean heavily toward the big box stores.  Even 1,000 independent retailers whose sales are up can’t offset one big chain whose sales are down.  At the end of the day, all you really care about is a survey of one business—yours.


Did I mention the other day that Missouri University’s football team is number one in the country?  Oh, yeah.  I guess I did.

That was just gratuitous bragging.  I’m mentioning it today to make a point.  MU plays Oklahoma for the Big XII Conference Championship this Saturday in San Antonio.  When Missouri’s allotment of 8,500 tickets went on sale Monday they sold out in two hours.  Scalpers art now asking as much as $300 for tickets that originally cost $39-$99, and they’re getting it.

It’s a little over 900 miles from Columbia, MO to San Antonio. San_antonio_map
According to Google Maps, that’s a fourteen hour drive.  Round trip air fare is about $500.00.  I’d say that anyone who’s willing to take the time and spend the money to make the trip is more than a customer.  They’re a FAN, possibly even a FANATIC.

So why do they do it when they could watch the game on television?  The answer is loyalty.  Some are students.  Some are alumni.  Some are parents. Some are season ticket holders.   But they all have a connection to the school.  They’re not just casual fans.  They’re not just customers.

So what about your customers?  Are they casual fans or are they loyal fans?  There’s a big difference.  Your fans probably aren’t going to drive fourteen hours to get to your store.  More than likely, they’re not going to buy a $500 plane ticket. 

  • But will they drive past your competitor, even if it means driving a little further, to get to you? 
  • Will they go out of their way to do business with you? 
  • Will they tell their friends about you?
  • Will they pay a little bit more to do business with you?
  • Are they connected to your business?

If you can answer all these questions "yes" then you don’t just have a customer, you have a loyal fan.  And she’s worth her weight in gold. 

Consumers Not Satisfied with Customer Service

According to, a recent on-line survey has shown that nearly one half of US consumers have stopped patronizing at least one business in the last year because of bad customer service.  The survey was conducted in May by Accenture, a management consulting firm.

46% said poor service had driven them away from at least one firm this year.  18% said retailers have the worst customer service followed by Internet service providers, banks, phone companies, and cable/satellite TV.  Utility companies, life insurance companies, airlines, and hotels were the least often mentioned.  That’s really not surprising since it’s hard, if not impossible, to walk away from these types of businesses. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is nothing that an independent retailer can do that will have greater returns than providing world-class service.  Over the weekend, I went with my son to buy a new vehicle.  He knew what he wanted and how much he wanted to pay.  He bought from the first dealer that we visited.  Why?  Well, first they had what he wanted and worked with him to get to the right price.  But more important, the whole transaction was just pleasant.  There was no pressure.  Everyone at the dealership was friendly and helpful. 

When we went to pick up the new vehicle, it was freshly washed and had a full tank of gas (not a small thing nowadays, especially for a pickup truck with a 26 gallon tank).  We kept them past closing time signing everything (my fault, I was late) but there was no rush, no one flashing the light or standing by the door tapping their foot. 

This wasn’t a huge sale for the dealer but it was a BIG deal for my 22 year old son.  He’d shopped around and frankly, other dealers hadn’t treated him nearly as well.  Most blew him off and didn’t even offer him a test drive.  Here’s the thing.  He’s 22.  This was his first car-buying experience.  Don’t you think he’ll remember who treated him well and who didn’t?  Given the rate of inflation, he’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on cars and trucks over the course of his lifetime. So will his friends and family.

It costs nothing to treat people well.  Auto dealers aren’t exactly turning people away today, especilly people shopping for full-size pickups.  Salesmen who would rather talk to one another or talk on the phone than talk to a potential customer should find another line of work.  Ditto for those who prejudge rather than prequalify.  That college kid in the ragged jean shorts might just have a father willing to co-sign his loan.  Word of mouth is the best, the cheapest, and the most effective form of advertising.  But, you can’t buy it.  You have to earn it.

It’s Monday.  You probably have a lot of work to do, getting caught up from the weekend.  But there’s nothing you can do today that’s more important than making sure that every prospect who walks into your store, leaves with a smile on her face and a positive story to tell her friends, whether she buys anything or not.

What are you doing to ensure that your customers get the best service possible?

The New Influencers

Karl Long writes today in MarketingProfs: Daily Fix on the subject of influence in the age of social media and new marketing.  A web site, Heat.Eat.Review offers reviews of microwave heat & eat meals.  It’s just one
example of how third-party reviewers can influence potential customers.  For instance, the reviewer says Star
Kist Lunch to-Go
smells like cat food.  Ouch!  Sorry Charlie.

In the "good old days" we knew who the influencers were and acted
accordingly.  Some years back, one of our dealers here in St.
Louis sold some ceiling fans to a local TV anchorman.  He had a
problem with one of them.  The dealer moved heaven and earth to
make sure the guy was happy.  Everything worked out ok. 

Whether a celebrity deserves any better treatment than anyone else
is open to debate, but the point is, today everybody has
influence.  Anyone with an internet connection can set up a blog
or post to any number of on-line consumer sites.  We have the
technology to spread the word, both good and bad, instantaneously
around the world, not just to our limited circle of acquaintances.

Where a TV personality in a medium-sized market like St. Louis can
influence thousands of people, a kid with a computer has the potential
to influence millions.  Scary, isn’t it?

To protect our reputations and our businesses in the twenty-first century, there are two things we must do:

1.  Treat every customer as if they could make or break our business, because they can.

2.  Take the time to find out what people are saying about us. 

To expand on number two, when was the last time you Googled
yourself?  Enter your business name, enclosed in quotation marks,
into the one or more of the major search engines, like Google or Yahoo.  Do the same for your major product lines.  If you
find anything, take care of it!  Don’t forget to search Google News and Google Groups.  Do the same with one or more of the major blog search engines like technorati
or feedster.  Again, if you get any hits, follow up on
them.  Your reputation is too important to leave it up to

By the way, I like  Lunch  To-Go.

Managing the Customer Experience

Yesterday morning I attended a web seminar on the topic of managing the "customer experience." The point of the presentation was that it’s not enough to just deliver a product or a service, you must deliver an experience to your customers and it’s the quality of that experience that’s all important.  The presenter was a guy named Bernd Schmitt and he gave a couple of excellent examples.Starbucks_1

He discussed the coffee business.  Wholesale coffee beans are a commodity and are relatively inexpensive.  Roast, grind, and package the same coffee and the price goes up.  Brew the coffee and serve it by the cup, with cream and sugar and a place to sit down and drink it and the price goes up again.  But, offer music, comfortable chairs, free newspapers, wireless Internet and offer frappes and lattes with whipped cream and foam and call yourself "Starbucks" and you can charge $4.00-$5.00 a cup.  That’s selling the customer experience.

He also talked about the Apple stores.  You can buy an iPod just about anywhere, but a huge percentage of them are sold at the Apple stores.  Why?  The price is the same wherever you buy them.  It’s the experience.  If you buy your iPod just about anywhere and you have a problem, it can be a hassle.  But, if you bought it at the Apple store, you take it to a "Genius Bar."  It’s just a service counter, but it’s presented as a perk.  You’re not talking to a service tech, you’re talking to a "genius."  There’s even a red telephone, a "hot line" to Apple Corp. in case the "genius" needs help.

What experience is your customer looking for?  You’d better find out before your competition does.

By the way, check out Schmitt’s web site.  It’s an experience.