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This year has been a great year for me: visiting and talking with a number of retailers, in multiple verticals, and around the globe. 

I’ve made some common observations among those retailers who are making it, those who are seeing their revenue grow profitably, and those who are doomed. I don’t feel that the observations I made are particularly profound, but they are consistent.

For those retailers considering their next step, I offer my observations as they are an integral part of my passion to help retailers thrive. I owe a lot to retail. It has shaped my career much more than I realized. 

I started my retail career when I was about 15. I worked in a grocery store owned by a family. It was a small independent grocery store and it had to compete by making it a great and friendly place to shop. I was conditioned to believe that the customer must be treated like gold. The customer had to have the “feeling” that the store really cared about them and was very happy to have them as a customer. This was pounded into me and I still remember my boss asking me: “Who gave you a compliment today?” My answer: “I had one just about every shift I had.” It was his belief that if your customer was pleased enough to give you a compliment for your service that you had achieved the level of service both the customer and he wanted. 

Later, I worked in the fashion retail sector. I worked for a couple of menswear stores, including one that sold fairly high-end clothing. I worked my way from folding clothes, straightening up the store, and cleaning up, to eventually sales. The sales approach at this store was not to be pushy. It was to ask questions to try and understand the look the customer was going after. If they had questions about fashion, we were supposed to answer them and, in turn, the belief was that the customer would feel comfortable in the store and would want to return.

I remember that this particular store sold relatively high-end leather jackets. This was in the 80s and those jackets were already north of $1,000, many were around $2,500. Today, that’s the equivalent of an $8,000 leather jacket. It gave me the bug and the passion for leather coats. I knew I needed to become an expert in these coats, so I studied how leather coats were made from the moment a calf skin arrived at a factory to the point where it hung in a store. I learned what was different about these coats and why they were the price they were so I could sell them. 

That thirst for knowledge fueled my passion for the product, and that enthusiasm was felt by my customers so they would return with their friends to have me explain why they too should buy the coat. I still consultatively explain and this, coupled with enthusiasm and passion, has made me a rock star in sales in every company I have been with ever since. 

Later, I worked as a waiter and had the good fortune to work in a somewhat expensive restaurant. It had a consistently busy pace so I had good sized tabs, with rapid turnover of my tables. This, of course, led to a great day of tips. I never relied on the fact that I was going to be busy, and I didn’t need to worry about my service. If one table left me a 10% tip, that table would soon be replaced by another group who might tip me 15%. But that didn’t matter. I kept my service level up and I would take the time to explain what food I liked, why I liked it, and what I thought would go well with what they ordered. I had some of the highest per-table averages and my tips were typically averaging north of 15%. Life then was great.

This might sound like well, yeah, this is obviously the 80s and the 90s. There was no real internet then, mobile commerce, eCommerce, or Uber food delivery services. If you wanted something you went to a store or a restaurant because you had to. I suppose there was still competition and humans were still involved. And while that notion of “that was then, this is now” may prevail a bit, it’s not as easily dismissed as you might think because I think those lessons are alive today. 

In all these cases, the consistent theme is a differentiated approach to the customer experience. The shopping experience those customers had was different, and through their experience they became comfortable shopping and buying—because the experience was tuned to one of being enjoyable. So let’s look at that in a bit more detail through the following three observations:

  1. Retailers who are making it are the ones who are changing their customers’ experience. And those who are changing the experience are making it even better when they incorporate mobile as part of the in-store experience. I have honestly yet to meet the individual who is under the age of 30 who doesn’t have a cell phone and who actively says, “Gee I wish I could just put this thing away when I go shopping, it’s so distracting.” Quite the opposite. 

They want to be in your store looking at the merchandise, understanding what it is, and having the ability to do the research. So, what changed? Just like I did as a clerk: I needed to become the expert in leather coats and then explain it to a shopper, the shopper now has the ability to become the expert. They frequently want to do just that. They don’t want to hear it from an individual, they want to do it. But how do you engage?

  1. Your on-the-floor staff need to be ready to interact. When the question comes up, they need to know the answer and they need to sound excited about it. This is where you as the retailer need to decide how your brand reflects that excitement. 

Just like when I was a grocery clerk and was constantly being asked about the compliments I received that day—you need to be asking your staff about the compliments they received that day. You need to use technology to ensure that the service is consistent and that the action of setting the stage for that compliment is thought through. 

I have, like everyone else, seen a lot of stores. If you are a retailer, take a picture of the front of your store in such a way that your brand logo is hidden. Do the same thing with your competitors. Show these pictures to 100 people and see how many immediately identify your store as your store. If it’s anything less than 50 you have some serious work to do, and if it’s anything less than 75 you have room for improvement, and you should improve.

The brands I see that have the balance between clerk engagement and customer conversion have this covered. These are not the brands where people come into the store and look at a product just so they can leave the store and order the same product in the parking lot. These brands create an environment that enables human interaction and that makes them different.

  1. Mobile is a bridge between the brick-and-mortar store and the eCommerce site. eCommerce should be supporting your brick-and-mortar strategy—not the other way around. If you lead with an eCommerce strategy, you have already lost to Amazon because you are fighting on its turf. You need to do what Amazon can’t.

Amazon is never going to have deep product knowledge and it’s never going to have human interaction. Amazon is all about eCommerce, so why are you fighting using its rules? The Amazon app is simply a mobile version of its website. It’s not a bridge between both and that is where the value of your app lies, and where the waiter is digitally in the background. Your app needs to do the waiter’s job of helping to guide your shoppers “through the menu.” 

Think about how mobile is a way to get people into your store. In most cases, I think today it is inventory transparency or maybe loyalty. Loyalty these days isn’t about points, it’s about the experience that you are going to give the shopper and the game, if you will, of how they are going to earn that experience. Mobile should be playing the role of helping your customers figure out what they are going to do today in your store, and then remove the obstacles that might be preventing them from coming into your store.

The brands I have seen that are doing well are consistently implementing these three observations. At the end of the day, is it really that different from the 80s? I don’t think so, it has just evolved. I could still have a great leather coat with a mullet hairstyle and a Trans Am car that is blaring “Turn Me Loose.” Today, it would obviously be ridiculous. However, it’s no more ridiculous than a retailer whose store front looks like everyone else’s with no mobile strategy and group of clerks that couldn’t care less about being there. Let alone care about your customers and their “feelings.”

Allan Zander

Allan Zander


Allan Zander is the Chief Executive Officer at omNovos and a regular keynote speaker on the subject of Digital Transformation. Allan loves the entire process around the “art of the possible” - whiteboard sessions where he gets to turn problems into ideas, ideas into solutions, and solutions into businesses. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter to start a discussion or even discover a new dinner recipe.