Our high streets are not just about shops and selling. The successful ones are a great experience, an engaging place to visit to try new things.
Mary Portas, This is Money
THE PAPERCHASE EXPERIENCE
Recently, my partner bought a set of notebooks from Paperchase. After unwrapping them at home, he realised the cover was made of translucent plastic, not paper (which is what we expected). We thought this was pretty cool, but it made me think a bit more about this retailer.
Why hadn’t Paperchase advertised this product’s USP, the translucent covers, in the shop?
Why were the books wrapped up and filed away on the shelf with all the other ‘normal’ notebooks?
In fact, why do shops do that? Why don’t they make the product’s USP more obvious?
Why do they make it seem like they don’t care about the product?
This experience, combined with many others over the last year as I’ve looked at ways to shop more sustainably, led me to this conclusion:
I don’t want to shop with a company who doesn’t seem to care about what they sell.
I don’t want to buy from brands where the product isn’t valued.
THE TWO THINGS WHICH TELL YOU IF A BRAND VALUES ITS PRODUCT
It’s not about the financial value of the product. It’s about whether the value of the product is clearly communicated in store. And it feels like a product isn’t valued when two big things happen in store:
- Poor visual merchandising
- Poor service
Undoubtedly good visual merchandising and good service is subjective, which is where the different business models of different brands contribute to how the product value is communicated.
For example, we might expect a fast fashion model to include:
- High volume display
- Merchandising focused on sales targets
- Low interaction service or fast self-service
An example at the other end of the scale is a luxury brand model, where there’s low volume display, merchandising focusing on product quality and highly personalised service.
Both models reflect what the customer is paying for beyond the physical product. Both communicate the different value of the product and values of the brand.
But even in the highest volume, lowest interaction service models merchandising and service shouldn’t be of poor quality. There’s still a competitive standard to be met, and increasingly competitive as high street fashion brands vie for market share.
THE MINIMUM REQUIREMENT
If good visual merchandising and good service is subjective, here’s my minimum requirement for fashion retailers:
- Clear signage or indication of departments, types of garments, sizing and price
- Clean, undamaged, pressed clothing
- Tidy display units with enough space to move and see clothes clearly
- Staff who are ‘visible’ (they’re on the shop floor and have some sort of identifier)
- Staff who know the shop layout, sizing conversions (e.g. bust measurement of size 12) and new stock
- Staff who are willing to help and polite
I don’t expect amazing visual displays involving fountains and fruit, or staff who can recite the latest trends to me. Or even staff who smile and are really pleased to see customers, because I know retail is a tough job. Just that list.
(I don’t know whether the list sounds far too simple or radically unachievable. Tell me what you think!)
WHEN RETAILERS DON’T GET IT
In some of the disappointing experiences with fashion retailers, I’ve found display units rammed with hangers, making it difficult to see sizing. Clothing is crushed or streaked with makeup from a previous potential customer. Staff don’t know sizing conversions or can’t explain where items on ‘hero’ mannequins are in the shop itself.
In the worst cases, products are so poorly arranged or cared for it feels like you can’t buy them (either from confusion or repulsion). Staff are disengaged (unsurprisingly, given what we pay sales assistants in the UK) to the point of apathy and haven’t been trained in spotting when a customer is ready and willing to buy – so they miss sales.
These small things show that retailer hasn’t met that minimum requirement. In turn, it shows that the brand does not value their product enough to clearly demonstrate its perceived value through display or service.
Retailers have to deal with customers and their irritating habits of making a store messy, so it’s expected that over the course of a trading day the shop floor won’t always look it’s best.
But brands still have a choice at the start of the day to display products in a way which adequately communicates their value. They have a choice in staff, and a choice when it comes to training staff. They have a choice to meet a minimum requirement.
So why don’t they?
FIVE REASONS BRANDS DON’T SHOW THEY VALUE THEIR PRODUCT
1: The business model
Partly it depends on what business model they operate. Low cost, high volume retailers work on big numbers of clothing, so it’s imperative they pack as much into their retail footprint as possible. And to cut costs their wages and training funds might be lower than average, resulting in lower than average service quality.
2: Quantity over quality
But also there’s a desire for many retailers to demonstrate breadth of choice over quality of choice.
In Predictably Irrational, my recommended reading from last month, the author explains a number of experiments which show our dislike of losing out on available options even when the options open to us aren’t high quality.
We (apparently) want choice, so retailers work quantitatively rather than qualitatively.
3: Brand aesthetic
Similarly, the aesthetic of a certain brand might contribute towards a retail space which is visually busier than you might expect – like Lush, or Accessorize, where abundance/indulgence are both quite important aesthetic elements.
However, even in these stores clear value is assigned to the product ranges, through experiential merchandising and very good staff knowledge.
4: Lack of appreciation of service skills
Fashion retailers don’t necessarily pick staff with poor product knowledge, but the way British culture undervalues good service means some retailers don’t think the willingness and ability to absorb and communicate product information is that important. Instead, speed and flexibility of working hours might be the reason staff are chosen.
5: Poor internal communications
Many retailers don’t effectively market to their internal customers (their staff) compared to their external customers. That means training programmes are minimal, or hurried, or are consistently these top-down messages so staff don’t feel like they can really take part.
The result is a body of people who are disengaged and therefore don’t accurately communicate the value of the product they’re selling.
TOO SCARED OF RISK TO SHOW VALUE
Ultimately, the reason retailers don’t appear to value their product and instead display poor merchandising and poor service is because the alternative is high risk.
It’s risky to show a few products in a retail space where five times as many could be packed in.
It’s risky to invest in training for staff who might leave next year.
It’s risky to really think about the perceived value your product is (or is not) communicating, because that would mean questioning the quality of your product and business.
Brave retailers who truly value their product are self-assured. They select and merchandise products with care. They train staff so they are living emblems of the business’ values. They see these investments of time, money and space not as high risk, but high return.
IF BRANDS DON’T VALUE THEIR PRODUCT, NEITHER WILL WE
As bricks-and-mortar retailers compete with a greater range of ecommerce stores, physical retail spaces and personal selling are becoming bigger USPs than ever. Yet visiting a British high street, neither of these potential differentiators feel like they’re really being addressed.
The real risk isn’t money or space wasted. It’s that there’s a demographic of consumers, interested in finding brands they can depend on and a high quality, fully-rounded experience, who will turn away from these retailers.
Why should a customer value a brand’s product when it doesn’t seem to be valued by the very people who make and sell it?
Why love a brand which doesn’t love its products, its people or its store?
Why buy something value-less?
I believe that good service is our basic right. Far too many businesses on our high streets don’t prioritise good service as part of their offer, meaning that as a nation we’ve come to expect no better …[yet]…It’s amazing how the smallest service gestures really make a difference: from connecting with and really knowing and caring for your customers, to having an in-depth knowledge that guides and advises them; serving is quite simply the new selling.
Mary Portas, The Portas Review 2011
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