7 Critical Things Specialty Retailers Must Do to Survive in The Amazon Era

By Bob Phibbs

specialty retailers grow retail sales with retail sales techiquesBefore I share how specialty retailers can survive and thrive, a question...have you ever played Jenga?

It’s a game where players take turns removing one block at a time from a tower constructed of 54 blocks.

Each block removed from the bottom is then placed on the top of the tower, thus creating a progressively taller but less stable structure.

A lot of specialty retailers get some loyal customers, they build a brand and in their own way, they build their tower. Like a lot of Jenga players, they do many things right in the beginning.

But for retailers when the inevitable winds of change blow with increased competition, the retailer can be rocked to the core…or even collapse. For example, Forbes last week said that the U.S. boasts ten times more square footage of retail than most other countries. That means there are more places to buy more stuff than anywhere else in the world.

Some retailers run to technology for salvation as fewer shoppers linger at the mall, walk into stores, and buy less impulsively just because.

But for those retailers, they’re just building a taller tower…

As time goes by, every business notices holes in their foundation. How they handle those holes tends to separate them into two camps…

They either settle for where they are and fall backwards, or they push themselves to keep moving forward and thrive.

Those brands or stores whom I have the privilege of consulting with seem to always be working to create a stronger foundation, or if some of the metaphoric blocks are weak, they bring me in to strengthen their existing foundation. 

Here are 7 Critical Things Specialty Retailers Must Do to Thrive...or Bob, What Should We Do?

1. Provide excellent customer service. An exceptional shopper experience is as much the setting as it is the encounter with your salespeople. When every inch of your store is thought out to how it could surprise and delight, and you add a professional retail sales team carefully schooled in modern retail sales techniques, who is constantly consumed with making everyone else’s day before they try to make their own day, offering an exceptional experience is a standard, not a rarity. If you turn to technology to engage shoppers, you’ll create an even greater distance between you and the customers you’re hoping to create. Excellent customer service evolves from a curiosity about the individual human being in your store and why they chose to drive past other competitors to shop with you. Offering options when it comes to products, asking permission of the customer if you have to leave them alone, and providing wisdom when comparing and contrasting similar products are all hallmarks of an exceptional customer experience.

2. Buy intelligently & manage inventory closely. Newer retailers tend to go hog wild when buying what they think will sell. After all, it’s fun to buy things without thinking about having to pay for it. The smart retailer is very familiar with their turns of merchandise and their margins. You want to treat your open-to-buy like it is your own money; you don't want to see it languishing on the sales floor collecting dust. For example, it may seem like a good idea to have every type of bicycle to meet every need is smart, but fitting it all into a small space usually means rows of bikes that overwhelm customers and actually lose you sales. Same for cosmetics, shoes, and a host of products where too much inventory makes shopping a chore.

3. Market focused on what the customer needs and not on your need for their money. So you’ve got a new product? You’ve got a sale? So what? Who doesn’t? Unless you focus your marketing messages on what the customer gets out of shopping with you, you’re like a needy school kid saying look at me all the time. How do you help your customers live a better life? What challenges do your products solve for them? Focus on answering those questions in your emails, your ads, and your status updates, and you’ll find a tribe of supporters loyally supporting your business. Not sure if you are doing it already? Just ask yourself, if I was a customer, would I care about this? If your answer is no, change your marketing message.

4. Train staff with systematic management. Never forget that your job as a retailer in this world of hope-depleting setbacks, is to provide your customers with the hope to do better, to not give in or give up, and to not retreat into feeling isolated or sorry for themselves. That goes for your employees as well. Having the right processes and religiously training your employees make the difference between a retailer who is putting out fires all day long and a low-drama yet probably high-profit shop. Train with a checklist so everyone receives the exact same information. Help each and every employee to open their hearts to a stranger, and inspect what you expect on a regular basis.

5. Manage your financial information. Data informs everything from employee management, to open-to-buy, to cash flow. Those who believe out-of-sight is OK often have a rude awakening. Set up automatic emails of KPI reports every Sunday night so you have fresh information every week to act upon. Have your payables on a regular schedule, i.e. all bills received by or on the 20th are paid two weeks later. Be always aware of and ready for your quarterly tax bills and necessary capital expenses. Get a business line of credit before you need it. Managing cash flow effectively means you are always aware of future obligations which leads to lower stress levels.

6. Strategically merchandise your visual displays. Visual merchandising cuts down your hundreds of SKUS to a manageable few while making shopping fun. When it comes to windows, the focus has to be at a normal person's height. Easy tip is go out to your front window and look into your window. Have someone use lipstick or something to mark the outside of the window at the height where your eyes are. That is your sweet spot. Create a tight display in that area. The lights in the window have to aim squarely in the middle where your eyes were focused. Inside the store, the best and brightest merchandise has to be displayed at the front. Keep clearance items in the back as shopper interest decreases the farther into the store they venture. I had one client sell a $500 ski jacket the day after we re-merchandised his whole store. The jacket hadn’t sold in months prior. Another found a sales increase of 30% simply by creating the right displays throughout the store.

7. Plan for the long range. On many days, just getting through the day-to-day is tough. But you have to get up in the blimp and look down on the whole playing field on a regular basis to see the opportunities you’re missing, your competitors who are offering new and innovative products, your employees who need additional opportunities, ... the works. At the same time, you need to keep your long-range goal always in mind. I suggest that goal should be to craft a life you’re proud of, not a life of just working. That means you have to look at succession planning and the metrics needed to sell your business or hand it off at some point. No one will buy a business that is unprofitable or dependent on one product or one personality.

What happens when you get these foundations in place?

You have less dead inventory.

The merchandise you buy is based on data, not hunches.

You create an exceptional experience for everyone who comes in, not just for your regulars.

You are less dependent on running sales all the time and more dependent on finding what’s new and different to offer your customers hungry for your vision of the world.

Your windows and displays become your silent salespeople focusing distracted shoppers’ attention in a split second to consider buying your merchandise.

Your employees look forward to coming to work and do not call in sick.

Your intentions are focused firmly on the future and how to make everything run more smoothly and profitably.

See also, 7 Cringe-Inducing Behaviors That Push Retail Customers Away

In Sum


Stop doing things that don't focus on the customer.

Yes, you can look for the easy choices like adding a new line to hope to grow your sales. You can buy a bunch of iPads to keep track of stock and offer BOPIS. You can try most any new shiny object. (Remember when everyone but me touted Groupon as the best way to market their business?)

But in the end, just building a taller tower without fixing the fundamentals makes you even more vulnerable to Amazon who represented 40+% of online sales last fall.

There’s no choice worth making that doesn't make you question why you do things a certain way, say things a certain way, or allow certain things because change can produce short-term stress and anxiety in exchange for a long-term benefit.

And remember, you always have a choice between being stuck and moving forward.

Stay focused and continually address these 7 critical areas and you’ll have the ability to grow your retail sales and survive. And as you get really good at it, thrive in the face of an always-on consumer.

No matter how high your tower of blocks is…

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