We’ve talked about customer service recently, and how the concept of “good customer service” varies with the expectations and tastes of individual customers. Related, and equally important, is the varied idea of an exceptional real-world shopping experience. Think of the former as the philosophy, while the latter is more about the physical process.
I firmly believe that the pundits who claim that the internet has killed brick and mortar are wrong on a couple of points. First, a large number of people (and by all reports, even millennials) still like to shop in a physical space. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce accounted for only about 9 percent of total retail sales for the year 2017, and the growth rate is slowing — total e-commerce share is projected to be about 11.1 percent for 2019. There’s still plenty of business out there for all of us.
Second, the internet did not do the damage, but it’s basically feeding of the rotting flesh of the retail zombies. (Enjoy the Halloween-appropriate imagery.) I’ve been saying for years that online shopping grew so rapidly because retail has been delivering a substandard shopping experience for 25 years. An entire generation has grown up with a shopping history evoked by the bad cliché, “You want fries with that?”
Think back — or ask your parents or grandparents — about the excitement of retail stores at the holiday season, or shopping for school supplies when it wasn’t an endurance contest, or buying toys, clothes, your first bike, or the trappings of your first dorm room or apartment. Ogling the choices, trying things on, sit-testing the couch … there was always an adventure in progress.
But decades ago, and led by then vigorous companies like Sears (pre-Walmart, and of course, pre-Amazon), retailers started boosting the bottom line by cutting payroll (the easiest way to increase net profit), scaling back “fluff” promotions (because intangibles like loyalty are not directly measurable in dollars) and cutting store maintenance to the bone.
I watched this start when I worked at Sears just out of college. My first couple of years there were at the company’s peak. Employee morale was high, individual stores and departments had some measure of local autonomy, and the customer base was fiercely loyal. But under the guise of “streamlining,” more decisions moved up the food chain and away from the people who talked to the customers, and those decisions increasingly focused on nothing but margins and profit. Hours kept getting cut, both on the sales floor and in support areas. Less time was spent on store trim and displays, and the creative flair of a display department was eventually replaced with canned trim packages executed by a harried sales staff. Maintenance and upkeep? I watched a store operations manager direct workers to only repaint a wall 12 feet on either side of the main aisle, since that was all the Chicago big shots would see on their walk through the store. Talk about a Potemkin house.
Is it any wonder, then, that the prospect of shopping in your jammies with a glass of wine had real appeal for many people? After standing in lines at shabby stores, where an ever-narrowing selection was overseen by untrained or even surly employees, it was delightful. Absent the magic, retail is a chore. But with the magic and excitement in place and on point, customers will come.
For those saying, “Ain’t no magic in no dang valve oil,” think bigger. We live in an industry lucky enough to be a veritable pipeline of magic. We may not make valve oil sexy, but music and the process of making it is and always will be.
Now, think about the varied needs of customers. For some people, a great shopping experience is getting exactly what you need in a minimum amount of time. For this consumer, setting up clear, well-stocked displays with good signage, and having staff that can direct people to what they need — piano books, guitar strings and, yes, valve oil — is refreshingly positive. I’ve had plenty of customers this fall thank me for making things easy.
Other folks, particularly newbies to our industry, need information clearly and cordially presented. Sure, they may be in a hurry, but they don’t want you to be in a hurry to get them out the door. They want their questions answered, the tuner demoed or the clarinet assembled. They want to be comfortable and confident about their purchase.
Many parents also want you to include their kids, and remember, they are the shoppers of the future. I had a third grader — gleefully, mind you — pick out her pink general music recorder. Seeing her fully decked out in pink, I said, “Well, I thought pink just might be your color.” “Yes,” she answered, “it’s just perfect!” The shopping genes are alive and well.
So how can we make our stores more shoppable, particularly as we approach the holidays? Clean and reduce clutter, first of all. (I fight this battle daily, so it’s as much a reminder for me as anyone.) Display merchandise in logical groupings, and make sure things stay in order. Use signage whenever possible to act as a “silent salesperson,” to explain, suggest and organize merchandise.
Decorate — not just seasonal trim, but with interesting artwork, vintage items, concert memorabilia: whatever reflects the character and vibe of your store. Put up Christmas trim if you’re a Christmas person. A lot of people dig “festive,” even if they don’t celebrate in their culture. But, above all, make your store a place people want to visit; they’ll shop while they’re visiting.
Come up with activities that aren’t tied directly to sales. Host a jam session, invite some bluegrass pickers, form a uke group or schedule a preschool class field trip. No, you may not make a profit on that activity, but you’re planting seeds.
The little kids, the parents, the 13-year-old first-time guitarist, the resuming violinist, the lifelong pianist — they love what we love. Our job is to make it easy, fun, engaging and memorable when they join us.