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The Retailer's Dilemma

Updated: May 18, 2023

What is the retail dilemma? It is still about physical retailing; it is critical to delivering a great customer experience, product and merchandising practices that scream aspirational dreams. Few retailers can financially afford to provide and impress with this level of operational execution.

I know that I have mentioned this before when you type in "Customer Experience" on a Google search, you will get over 3 Billion results in .50 seconds. That's how overused the terminology and options for the subject exist. Many believe there is a straightforward success story for physical retail with a simple solution to deliver a "Customer Experience." Now let's call a customer experience for what it is. A value proposition. What's yours? I could stop here and allow you to figure it out. Leading retail brands has taught me that desperate competitors copying or re-engineering someone else's strategies is not sustainable and usually flops because it doesn't fit. It's like wearing a size ten shoe and buying and settling for a size 9 or 11 because you want it so bad you are willing to compromise, and you do!

The traits for an entire retail experience from entry to exit must be unique, memorable attributes exclusively to your brand. This is where most retailers lose sight of outcomes. A customer experience should be what you believe your brand stands for and how that vision is delivered. With a compilation of attributes from service steps, store designs, and employee training to creative merchandising principles, all crafted internally that don't require brain surgery or more than 10 minutes to explain the vision.

Most customer experiences are undeliverable today. However, it was more realistic 50 years ago when many trained people served the public and retailing was considered a profession. Even buying and merchandising were once considered an art, but not anymore. Today there is no way any retailer can return to the same level of experience from 50 years ago, not without losing money and or going bankrupt. And the only way to avoid going bankrupt today is by cutting staff and service. Where have we seen this movie before? The days of Nordstrom, for example, where salespeople delivered shoes to your home, are dead! Now a courier does it with no fanfare whatsoever. Don't get me wrong; some retailers provide a wow experience. Everyone else is trying smoke and mirror tricks that don't stick nor create loyalty.

What's not a customer experience? Expectations such as asking me if I found what I was looking for are not a wow moment; that's like looking for praise that the pilot could land the plane. What else were they supposed to do?

I am also sorry that no technology can fix a broken brand or a poorly run business. Yet many will spend the money because they saw a presentation or heard of another retailer who has had success. A website is no more than a channel of the brand; e-commerce has failed many as they are digitally unable to compete because they are invisible, and costs prohibit smaller retailers from entering the arena. It is the same as trying to get a lease in a prime mall location for an unknown brand...almost impossible. Artificial intelligence has reared its head, and things are about to become even more challenging. Personalized service will take on a whole new meaning, most likely in ways we have never thought of. Then again, I expect many to dismiss the opportunities here just as they did when e-commerce was first introduced to consumers. The question then becomes have we learned anything since then?

The retailer's dilemma is simply staying visible and relevant; to accomplish that, you need to create trends, or you will join the masses and chase them. That's just the problem with a customer experience. There are many good intentions with poor results. So what is the solution? It comes down to believing that you have something unique to offer; however, that has become very difficult to achieve in large chains. It is much easier for brands with a new story to tell with a store that comes to life in the theatre of the consumer's mind. If it isn't aspirational and makes a consumer want to experience it again, retailers fall into one of many categories without human-to-human interactions. That means convenience or price propositions. Even in apparel, the lack of service leaves a retailer only with merchandising tactics, which is risky if you start to get that wrong.

Following one fundamental rule if you are trying to reincarnate a customer experience renaissance. Create trends to differentiate, don't chase them; that's just copying and never works out for long.

Shutterstock created the image above in cooperation with OpenAi.

George Minakakis is the founder of Inception Retail Group Inc. I help leaders and their businesses get to the next level of competition.

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