I think I caught the retail bug pretty early in my career. Coming out of college I aspired to be a BUYER. It sounded so glamorous and cool. Traveling to market and picking out the newest and trendiest product for my insanely fashionable (albeit traditional) retail customer. I’m unashamed to say that Rachel Green was my inspiration, who notoriously created a retail (hiring) trend unto herself with legions of young, newly minted ladies excited to work in the retail industry.
I started my first job wide eyed and ready to learn exactly what it took to make my dream of becoming a buyer a reality. I listened, questioned, and absorbed all the information I could and really started to love retail when I realized the precarious balancing act between the science of retail including the analytics and data and the art, trusting your gut and intuition. I loved, and still love that blend and it made so much sense to me that I decided to move into product development roles because that best captured my passion and excitement for retail.
I still remember the first time I heard it from a director in my company.
“Retail isn’t like it used to be…it used to be fun…”
I thought, “What do you mean? This is fun?!” I kept thinking about how much I enjoyed many aspects of my job like competitive shopping, sales analysis, trend watching, and product development as well as the team atmosphere and great relationships I had made.
I immediately didn’t get it because I didn’t have the benchmark of working in retail 25, 30, 35+ years ago. I didn’t know what “fun” meant at the time and was so happy in my role that I thought, “maybe I’m missing something?”
I asked her to explain and she alluded to the politics of it all in traditional corporate retail….Micromanaged by management and individuals weren’t allowed to own their business anymore…Focus on the competition so narrow that we missed out on opportunities to make innovative decisions for our brands or customers…We lost sight of our customers and were so dialed in to profitability that we no longer invested in trying new initiatives and strategies.
In hindsight, she wasn’t wrong. Being a newbie, I didn’t see it then but I do now and understand her frustration at the time. Since then, I’ve heard that statement countless times from other managers and peers with whom I grew up with in the industry.
I no longer agree with those statements or mentalities anymore, though. Sure, it may be a sticking point if you work at one of the traditional retailers that continue to struggle because they haven’t moved forward. But from this perspective, the retail landscape has changed so dramatically, even in the past 10 years, that I can no longer support that perspective and view it as an excuse. It’s an excuse for dwindling sales, lack of innovation, and a forgotten customer focus.
In my opinion retail hasn’t been this exciting in a long time, perhaps even before I entered the industry. This week’s Insights examine why the changing retail landscape should be inspiring you and reigniting your passion for retail’s future.
1. Your Brand Is Boss
I love a good comp shop trip, taking a full Friday out with the team to see what the competition had going on was one of my favorite activities. I loved all aspects of it --- seeing the product itself, checking on big trend assortments, analyzing price points, and looking for merchandising and packaging inspiration. I found clarity in these trips because it often validated our own assortments, or gave us an idea to chase if we found a gap.
There was value in comp shopping, and there still is, but the focus has changed. Today’s retailers and brands need to consider how to be different, not the same. Studying your competitors isn’t about making sure that you have their assortment covered - it’s about finding ways to make YOUR BRAND stick out. It is research of what NOT to do, because knocking them off isn’t going to set your brand(s) apart. Instead of copying your competitors, trying innovating and developing your brand niche. You are no longer competing with them, but instead with yourself.
It’s back to basics on branding and making your brand and product offering more specific and profound than ever before. Those winning are carving out their brand with specific details, attributes, marketing, and customer focus. They are not trying to fit in with everyone else, but instead create a brand or product that is a stand out.
2. Unbounded Opportunity
As a newbie in the mid ‘00s I saw the rise of innovation through the internet and social media, and more recently the launch of influencers and predictive analytics. In my previous roles, I grew impatient with traditional retailers’ stagnant and stubborn approach to these revolutionary initiatives. We sat on our haunches and focused our attention on what we always did, looking at our LY numbers and implementing the same recycled strategy. I couldn’t believe we weren’t moving faster, as opportunities continued passing by us rapidly. And when sales went down, we blamed Wal-mart, other competitors, the economy, the weather, and more recently Amazon and the ecommerce revolution (which we chose not to invest in). We found anyone and anything to blame, except ourselves.
There are no excuses anymore, because there is unbounded opportunity to be found today. Innovation and creativity abound and thrive. Ecommerce channels that span the globe, social media with dramatic reach, brand partnerships with the next up and coming influencer, and retail systems that manage data and intuitively share strategy. Retail has always been about thinking outside of the box, and its time we get back on track. Leverage your data, invest in tech and innovative marketing, use your experience, and identify new opportunities to create strategies that will motivate the customer to buy. There is no room for the old stale way; the focus should be on looking forward and embracing opportunity in the new age of retail.
3. The Return Of The Customer
Throughout all the placement meetings, finalization meetings, and category meetings I’ve been in, I could never get over the blatant disregard for the customer. So many merchandising decisions were based merely on the personal opinions of our team - “I love this” or “That is ugly” or “I think we are missing (insert luxury trend here)”. These opinions and comments were rarely justified with a reason why, yet they often carried more weight in our decisions and direction than our customer did. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, those opinions should not be used to make business decisions when they don’t reflect the opinion of your customer.
It never made sense to me. The product is for the customer, so it should be pretty obvious that product should be selected and developed, based on the customer’s needs through the brand lens. While I found it to be incredibly frustrating and embarrassing working for companies who treated product lines like their own personal product development machine, I can only imagine how the customer felt when they walked into their favorite department store and saw their much loved brands pushing merchandise that didn’t align to their wants or needs. This behavior led to the customer walking, and still walking away from those retailers. We are at a point where many traditional retailers are struggling and it is partly from their own doing. They have become so disassociated and so far removed with their customers that they aren’t even sure who their customers are any more.
With the rise of ecommerce, the customer is being given new and plentiful options, and competition is good for the retail industry. To grow your business, you simply have to look no further than giving the customer what they want. And what is that? The customer is looking for you to provide them with the best experience, brand, and product that you can. Its time retailers get back to the customer and start investing and engaging in who they are, what they want, and how to provide it for them. With a renewed customer focus it becomes much more exciting to see your retail vision come to fruition, and the profitability that comes with it.
It seems like there is so much resistance still today to moving retail forward. We continue to hear about the retailapocalypse and are constantly bombarded with news of bankruptcies and mergers today. However I believe that much of this is the result of lack of innovation and lack of creativity from once relevant leaders in the industry.
Today, I see all the untapped potential in retail. The opportunities that are out there are fresh and fun and exciting and give you the chance to get back to the “good ole days” and recapture the spirit of retail that makes it a dynamic, creative, and innovative industry.
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