Wither Retail: Howard Schultz Will You Lend A Hand?
I’ve had two fascinating conversations in the past couple of days, both centered on what-in-the-world-can-save bricks and mortar retail? As is nearly always the case, sharp thinking gets sharpened in dialogue, rather than by ruminating off in a corner on Macy’s decision to close 40 more stores and fire 4800 more employees in order to offset dismal sales and earnings last year. I was in one of those closing stores recently and it was heart-breaking to see a seasoned, senior and professional sales person walking the second floor and letting people know that “Yes, the fixtures are for sale.”
The essential promise of great retailing is being “lucky,” which can be manifested in many ways: Getting the right dress for that special evening, finding the suit that fits perfectly, discovering the perfect tie that will bring out the color of his eyes. And, of course, getting a great ‘buy.’ For most of the past 20 years, that last option has driven stores like Macy’s: 30 percent off! No 40! How about 50? Do you like me now? The flop sweat is nasty.
The downward price spiral erodes the margin that could be spent on staff. So a time motion expert arrives at Macy’s Herald Square and sees that Sophia spends most of her day walking the 3rd floor marking down the price and writing in the new cost. Then, repeats that the next day, as they take another five percent off. He suggests they just put 30 percent off signs on the top of the kiosks and have the customers do the math. That doesn’t work. Then, they decide that technology can come to the rescue: Voila! Scanners are installed everywhere, so that customers can just run the tag through the scanner to find out how much the price is today. Except that the scanners don’t work and the customers don’t like them and now Sophia has been downsized so there’s no one to ask how much the item costs today. The customer walks away in disgust. Online shopping seems pretty fine right about now, doesn't it?
Meanwhile in its endless desire to make someone else do its job (let’s let the customer figure out the price), the store stops training its sales staff on this year’s fashion trends. Let’s let the manufacturers schlepp in two boxes of donuts and set up in the break room. They can bribe tired salespeople with a free sugar high to listen to why the plackets are designed this way this year, and the YYK zippers are a quality improvement, and the color palette is inspired by sunset in Tahiti. All on the off-chance that at some point one of these people will remember what they’ve been told “on break” and somehow communicate it to a customer. It’s enough to make you weep.
And yet. Somebody has done this right: Starbucks has managed to train and professionalize its staff to make pitch perfect coffees and teas and knowledgeably discuss the origins and taste profiles of its wares. If a coffee shop can be professionalized, why not retail salespeople? Oh, I know, the Armani and Chanel sales people are pros. World class at what they do. But what about that poor Macy’s customer, just trying to find a dress for the office party? Lord & Taylor? Nordstrom? Can you hear her now?
Editor’s Note: Late breaking news. I know the answer to the riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise?” The answer is NO. How do know? My love affair with my Fitbit continues and the other night I saw I was six flights of stairs shy of a perfect green circle of achievement. So, I went out to the interior stairway of our building and climbed up six flights, came back down and went to my Fitbit Dashboard, ready for the endorphin rush. But no! The mean-spirited dashboard told me I’d only done one additional flight. You may imagine my distress. Now, I knew I’d climbed all the flights I needed to. But the tracker didn’t know it. My climb didn’t count, wasn’t heard. I went out and climbed five more flights of stairs. This time the tree fell and it was heard.