Underwater Stick Waving
Lake Winnipesaukee cloaked in her early morning mists in Meredith, NH.
Who knows what is going on beneath the surface of a murky body of water? If we can’t see it, is it really happening? With so many moving parts in the business of retail’s multiple selling and marketing channels, how does one get the customer’s confidence? More is not more. It’s simply overwhelming. Multiple daily emails with different deals in different channels and mixed messages in social media can be mind numbing. Yes, we need to be available to the customer wherever the customer wants to be reached, but we need to do it with consistency, offering non conflicting deals and stories in all channels at the same time. Otherwise, that effort is frustrating or invisible to the customer and might as well be underwater stick waving.
The “Check Out”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we go to great expense to energize customers to interact with us every day. Rarely does one decide to browse through websites or visit a physical location without a desired outcome in mind. As the NRF points out in its path to purchase, the decision to purchase is vast and varied. https://nrf.com/resources/consumer-research-and-data/consumer-behavior/consumer-path-purchase. Direct mail, digital marketing, and content in any channel will pique interest in many products which may otherwise have limited views/attention. Illustrating the why behind the what drives the impulse to purchase. Those inspired consumers will take immediate action, looking to place their order to acquire their desired “stuff”. Believing that once the impulsive customer arrives, they will be satisfied with an inefficient and unattractive process is naive. The time, energy and funds spent to direct the customer may end up in the virtual or physical equivalent of a junk yard. The customer simply leaves. It’s equivalent to a hunt for a sales associate, or being on hold with a phone call. Unless the order form is seamless customer experience, you have no sale. Simplify the process. Eliminate steps. Seal the deal with your customer by making it easy to say yes.
The Human Touch
How important is face to face connection in the world of retail these days? Based on recent sales floor experience, it’s clear that we are not yet ready for the Jetson life. Below are the three most common reasons a customer crosses the threshold:
1. Return stations for online purchases. Customers don’t hesitate to order multiple sizes, and or multiple items to try on at home and return everything they decide against to a physical location. Their home is their private fitting room, and the local store is their reject rack. While there is some opportunity to flip this into a physical sale, it is typically a net negative sales transaction. Do the store systems track the source of the returns? If not, four wall performance is diminished by returns from another channel.
2. Hungry for guidance. Customers wander in looking slightly uncomfortable, standing in front of a merchandise presentation with a blank stare. The relief they express when an informed and positive person gets them talking about why they have arrived, is palpable. These interactions turn into a lot of fun. Providing product knowledge and understanding the needs of a customer is key. In these cases, price is not necessarily a primary decision driver.
3. Specific hunt. The shopper has an immediate need for an event or an emergency and doesn’t have time for a delivery. Some shoppers are more than happy to make a less than perfect purchase because no one else in any other store had even approached them.
In the short time during which I have returned to the selling floor, the number of “thank you’s“ and “this was fun” heard from the customers in response to our shared experience has reinforced the prevailing discussion that the physical channel will continue to exist. It’s up to each business to provide the experience worth visiting in every channel. Happy, informed humans do help.
Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?
When was the last time you put yourself in the shoes of your customer’s experience? With the reliance on data to tell us how well products and promotions are being accepted (or not) do we truly understand all of the stumbling blocks or successful conversion techniques behind a purchase?
With so much debate about the value of four wall vs online purchasing, I decided to spend some time in the nitty gritty world of the mall store to see for myself how much the purchasing experience had changed from the time I first began my merchandising journey. Bottom line, not a whole lot. These things are still of critical importance to a customer:
- A friendly, helpful greeting by an attentive (not hovering) and knowledgeable sales associate. This includes checking in with them even after an “I’m browsing” response.
- “Knowledgeable” includes familiarity with the product assortment, sizing, promotional activity in store and online and store set up, as well as quality vs. competition.
- A neat, well merchandised selling floor, including markdown merchandise.
- Consistent refreshing of the merchandise focus to keep the customer entertained and engaged with new products in the front of the store and windows. As we all know, this is invaluable marketing real estate.
- A sense of community interacting with the customer and a thank you with a ” It was fun working with you, we’re looking forward to seeing you next time” message as they leave.
The other key component in a winning store experience was and continues to be a selling staff who is committed, well informed and is supported and empowered by the entire organization. These people work very hard juggling multiple priorities which are also physically demanding and at times unpredictable. Two of the leading frustrations which impact an associate’s interaction with customers are:
- Conflicting prices and promotions online vs. in store. Many four wall customers follow online assortments and promotions very carefully challenging the sales staff on pricing over which they have no control. A policy giving the stores the ability to price match on the spot would solve this. Better yet, synergized promotions for a seamless omnichannel experience.
- Systems which apply in store online returns against store sales goals. While there is often an opportunity to exchange online product for additional product in the physical store, many customers order a range of sizes to find the best fit and then return the other sizes for credit, reducing the overall metrics for the day iimpacting stores KPIs which in turn impact are bonus and reviews. This also skews the amount of business attributed to the online channel in relation to the four wall. Doubt many store customers are returning their four wall purchases to the online channel. (This is not a new challenge. Mail order/catalog has long done the same thing. With the sophistication of systems these days, though, it should be recognized and addressed.)
Do you choose to be a Good Witch: https://youtu.be/TP_wx0qrKu0
Or a Bad Witch: https://youtu.be/Leb83bRkXDg
To be successful, our customer needs to know where to find her ruby slippers. From us, of course.
Lies, Damn Lies and Analytics
Easy to get caged in your analytical playpen when you don’t know the why behind the data. Learn to ask the tough questions.
The beauty of a dashboard is that access to statistics and results can be immediate. With the press of a button, google analytics provides a host of information on a websites performance. The daily sales dashboard from the data warehouse has some good stats. The unfortunate result of that is proclamations of success or failure at any given point without comprehension of the why, can drive action which does real damage to an assortment, a marketing campaign, revenue drivers, purchase projections. You name it.
The downfall of a dashboard is that many observing it don’t understand the why behind the current results.
- The average order value to our customer is continuing to increase annually. We’re doing such a good job providing them with the goods and services they demand. What do you mean the customer base is decreasing? We need more customers! Let’s grab them from our competition.
- Traffic to the website is spiking. We’re brilliant! Oh. What do you mean that 500,000 catalogs landed in mailboxes this week? That’s print. Print is dead. It’s all about our website. Look at that increase in conversions! Look at the average order value!
- Look at the revenue we’re driving with that discount coupon! We’re up 30% in revenue! We need to keep up price promotions on the entire site! Our customer base is eating this up! What do you mean we’ve lost 600bps in margin? We’ll make it up in margin dollars! Why are we out of our bestselling products?
- Revenue in category A increased from 10% of the total to 20% of the total for a 100% increase in sales. Genius! Really? Give me the $. Sales and margin. If total revenue increased from $100,000 to $105,000, then category A increased from $10,000 to $21,000 which is 110% increase in sales in the category, driving an overall 5% increase in revenue. Unfortunately, category B and C, which have higher margins than category A dropped in penetration due to downtrending product, or delivery issues, or price increases due to tariff changes, etc. So overall gross margin came in at $32,000 vs. $38,000 LY, leaving less to cover overhead. Where do we cut?
Basic arithmetic and an good understanding of the foundations of a business are all you need to dissect a dashboard. How many times do you hear the why questions being asked? Sure, traffic and page view increases to a site make everyone feel good. More feet through the door are exciting. But if they don’t funnel through with increases in conversions and order values, the story can be misleading and may not end well. Give me facts tied to actual products and categories any time. The right mix combined with more customers will have a happy ending.
Everything Old is New Again
This Smith Corona manual typewriter is a sentimental piece of my history. The best gift ever at the time I received it. Reams of paper were consumed and miles of words were written. My typing skills were honed here. Let’s not forget the White Out and Korrecto-type consumption either.
In our current world of keyboard options, I have been forever grateful to have my typing skills. My fingers fly faster than many. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. asdfjkl; Thanks to my computer savvy husband who watched in mild horror as I worked with green ledger paper, pencil and calculator to calculate orders, I began using our home Apple computer and Lotus in 1985. Got my first laptop in 1992 for Mother’s Day along with a portable printer. (Everything needed to be on paper.) As time has gone on, my keyboard proficiency has continued to serve me well as I embrace every possible efficiency which new technology continues to provide. Change has not caused me to lose skills, it has allowed me to improve and add to them.
Now expand that thinking to business acumen. Everything learned over time has been continually refined and expanded to allow for more efficient decision making and a humility borne of an understanding that simply because an approach didn’t work once upon a time, it shouldn’t be ruled out in a new environment. No two people approach things in exactly the same way, but clear direction towards a common goal will lead to the best results.
- What about those physical stores emerging from the world of ecommerce only businesses? Are they all warehouses for inventory? No. Some do double duty, but not all. Do they allow a consumer to get a comfort level with physical product before investing? Yes. A purchase is more likely to “stick”.
- Direct mail pieces from Wayfair? Catalogs from Bonobos? Who would have thought.
- The real story is that people want to shop where and when they choose depending on the product, their time and their need to get familiar with products.
All of this goes back to the simple truth that as long as we continue to push for better answers, we will build on instinct and experience using data to confirm and expand on opportunities. Nothing and no one is old as long as we continue to challenge assumptions and apply new learnings.
Can an Algorithm Do This?
Merriam Webster defines algorithm as: a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer. ~a search algorithm.
Without the concept, who needs an algorithm.
“A procedure for solving a mathematical problem”. That’s the challenge. What are the elements of the mathematical problem? That’s where instinct comes into play. What price, what cost, is there seasonality, is there a life cycle? On and on and on… Where is the algorithm that determines that a consumer is looking for a chambray 3/4 sleeve tunic if there have been no like items in the assortment? Merchandising instinct and marketing muscle. Once the item is identified and exposed, the algorithm can go to town! It’s a part of sophisticated merchandise planning. Nothing new, simply done with a really long equation fed into a computer rather than a calculator, pencil and ledger paper.
- Hula hoops: http://bit.ly/2oPht0Q
- Pet rocks: http://bit.ly/2oONtCn
- Yoga pants
Started with an idea not an equation. The data will justify the instinct.
Marketing or merchandising? Who gets to choose the focus? This tension has existed for as long as I can remember. Marketers are the story tellers, determining and inspiring the targeted audience to make the purchase. Merchants comb the market place on a constant quest for the “right stuff” and always take into account the why and the who behind the choices. If you don’t know why you’re offering a product, you should not be acquiring it. Sometimes that stuff is exclusively developed with product managers and/or manufacturers to drive demand. In others, the merchandise is inspired by instinct based on glimpses of trends from all types of media. Or simply part of someone’s product line. (My kids thought people read magazines by ripping the pages after experiencing my habits.) Product assortments are based on logic and magic…interpretations of what is on the horizon, has been successful in other forms, or is total shot in the dark based on gut and analysis.
If merchants don’t know why they are purchasing/developing product, don’t have a clear vision of the price and profit guidelines and have no vision of product positioning, they aren’t doing their job. Same goes with marketers. If they aren’t asking the why behind the what in order to tell their story, they are not contributing to business growth in a collaborative partnership. It’s a team effort. Both talents are necessary to grow a profitable customer base. Embrace the blurring and create something great!
Now that you have an earworm, here’s some relief: http://bit.ly/2oQpiDO
As an economics major, the very first lessons involve supply and demand. When demand increases, supply should rise to meet the demand without flooding the market with excess. If that happens, the product becomes ordinary and the price lever is utilized in an effort to reduce the supply before demand evaporates altogether.
Designers begin demand creation by developing inspiring products, often working with merchandising and marketing teams for input. Flattering silhouettes. Appealing colors. Uniquely useful items. Faster, smarter, better. Items that make a statement about the person consuming them. Without exposing those things to an audience, the creation has no purpose. Merchants are constantly searching for the fresh, new “stuff” with a target audience, price tolerance, profit margin and end use in mind, often guided by details in financial plans and working with merchandise planning teams. Marketers are critical in getting the story of those products in front of the key audiences using both visual and analytical components for the best ROI. All together, they create demand while walking the razor’s edge of the right amount of supply as well as product expansion opportunities. When the demand for the supply has begun to downtrend, price reduction can be used responsibly to liquidate the excess quantities.
This all leads to the right product, at the right price, in the right quantities at the right time. The ultimate endgame for creating demand and maximizing profit. Otherwise, why bother. Driving demand with the hi/lo pricing game may drive short term results, but will ultimately reduce profitability and shorten the life of a product prematurely.