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How not to be a boring retailer

Last month I wrote an article which hit a nerve: Online competition didn’t kill Jeanswest. Boring retail killed Jeanswest. But something irked me about it. People called it a “rant”. I didn’t see it that way. It was a wake-up call.

I’m a retail optimist. I believe there is a massive opportunity for smart retailers who don’t get comfortable. They don’t settle for boring. Sure, it’s not as sexy as the retail “closing down” news stories, but if you look for it, you will find examples everywhere of non-boring retailers that are thriving. And there are some common themes.

Here is my five-point guideline on how NOT to fall into the trap of becoming a boring retailer.

1. Don’t hire drones

Imagine if you walked into Bunnings and you were served by a 15-year-old kid who looked more at home in front a Playstation than a paint tray. It wouldn’t be the same, would it? Give me moustached John any day. Sure, he might not be able to work the portable scanner, but I can guarantee he’s done 20 times more DIY projects than I ever have. Brand-breathing teams apply beyond in-store teams. Jen Geale, the founder of Mountain Bikes Direct, has a globally remote team. The one thing that connects them all? Their love of mountain biking.

“Everyone loves mountain biking, so that shared passion helps connect people, despite them working all sorts of varied hours and many having never met,” she has said.

I bet it connects with their customers as well. Your brand is your people. Curate a team that connects with your customers.

2. Ignore 80 per cent of your customers

Or, in other words, worship your best 20 per cent customers. Be unapologetic about creating an experience that your best 20 per cent rave about. Your tribe will do most of the leg work from there. Despite outside criticism, Gwyneth Paltrow has attracted her cult, I mean, customers into her wellness brand, Goop, by unapologetically speaking to them.

“She’s polarising for so many people. As a lot of women are who are unapologetic about what they believe and who they are in the world,” Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen, said.

In the pursuit of sustained growth, there is often a perceived need to widen the potential market when, in fact, you should be going deeper with your core audience. The more you talk to many, the less you mean to all. Make sure you know and speak to your best 20 per cent.

3. Deliver three “wow” experiences

In an omnichannel world where there are hundreds of potential customer journeys, you will never be the perfect retailer. Make peace with it. The pursuit for perfection will send you broke. Instead, pinpoint three critical moments in that customer journey where you will deliver “wow” experiences. These moments delight your customers and spark conversations.

Remember the early days of Amazon where we were blown away by how they knew the types of books we “might be interested in”? Have you ever received a handwritten note with your parcel like the team at Birdsnest do? Or have you been blown away by the meticulous crafting of a product details page? These are all “wow” moments. Pick three. For everything else, make it functional and meet the minimum expectations.

4. Avoid the competitive middle ground

I once worked with a senior manager who loved the art of retail because it is a simple game of “buying stuff cheap and selling it for more”. He was right, of course, but don’t ignore the art of product as a differentiator. It’s challenging to get more money for products that customers can get anywhere.

The competitive middle ground is a death zone. Be the cheapest or the most luxurious. Make it handcrafted or state of the art. Make it exclusive or ultra-accessible. But don’t get stuck in the middle.

The test is if a customer is in the market for your product, could they quickly put you on a shopping list with two or three other retailers? If so, you’re in the middle ground.

Aldi is a terrific example. They don’t have the biggest range. They limit themselves to stocking 1,500 products with a one-in, one-out policy. However, the majority of their products are exclusive, reasonably priced and high quality. Despite a mostly horrible customer experience lacking online shopping, paying for shopping trolleys and the anxiety-inducing checkout conveyor belt of doom, their unique product offering makes them difficult to compare.

5. Make loud bets

If you’re in retail for stability, get out. As we know, retail is an extremely dynamic and adaptive industry. Your non-boring brand needs to be driving the narrative, not just responding to it. This story needs to include making bets on new ideas which appeal to your core audience and seep into mainstream consciousness.

The best bets are ones that are original, low cost, on-brand and hit on human insight. They can often be divisive and involve risk. Think Tiffany‘s bushfire response, Lego as a solution for stressed-out adults and Crocs new KFC shoes.

On their own, they are relatively cheap executions that won’t break or make the bank. But they stand out and keep your brand front and centre. In a world of endless news cycles and insatiable social scrolling, don’t put your brand in the corner.

If you are a retailer that is meeting these guidelines, congratulations, you are NOT a boring retailer! You have taken control of your destiny. You are avoiding the excuses of “low consumer confidence”, “tough market conditions” or the dreaded, “online competition”.

For everyone else, give it a crack. There are plenty more auditors waiting in the wings.

This story first appeared on sister site, Inside Retail Australia.

Nathan Bush is the founder of e-commerce consultancy at 12HIGH. He was previously group digital manager at Super Retail Group and was placed in the Top 50 People in E-commerce four years in a row.

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