Thursday, July 02, 2009

No Smooth Sailing Ahead

With the July 4th holiday weekend upon us (for my U.S. colleagues), lakefront picnics and boating ventures are on the mind.

But as retailers, there doesn't seem to be smooth waters awaiting us. Pundits are predicting rough waters ahead for the back-to-school season. And they are suggesting we all keep a close eye on those seasonal sales as a predictor for the holiday season to follow.

So are we to do? It IS the time to celebrate our independence, after all! Can't we celebrate our freedom and exert a little influence on our situation in this economy? Certainly!

In reviewing some retail industry magazines recently--I do that...I'm a nerd that way--I ran across two cover stories from the NRF Stores magazine ( that combine for some interesting thoughts on getting through these tough times. In case you want to find them and read the full pieces, the articles are "Navigating the Road Ahead: What's next for retail in '09" and "Something's Got to Give: Cash-strapped customers are cutting back on (almost) everything" (Dec. 2008 and Feb. 2009 , respectively).

Following are some points from the articles and my two cents (of course) for campus stores.

1. Shoppers are looking for an antedote from the gloom. The retailers that can alleviate some of the distress (or drown the pain) being caused by this economic slump will win the sales. As we know, "affordable luxury" is IN and retailers that provide creative, quality products at affordable prices will do well. Seek to engage your customers, allow them to provide feedback and reviews, and empathize with their predicament--both through your service and your promotions. Bargain Buys and Power Hours can really drive traffic and help your customers know you are on their side.

2. Consumers are making some tough choices. They are giving up luxuries such as satellite radio, specialty apparel, high-end cosmetics, and fine dining. However, the "untouchables" are Internet service, basic cell phone service, basic cable, and discount shopping for apparel. For campus retailers, consider accessories for cell phones and electronics, sale events on apparel, and other ways to offer your customers something they can purchase to update their existing cell phone or wardrobe without breaking the bank.

3. IT is it! The data explosion is real and understanding what is happening in your store, with your sales, and everything you can about your customers is going to be more crucial as time marches on. I know money for POS systems, integrations, and other IT investments is tight (or non-existent) in higher education...but you simply must keep up the good fight and continue to look for solutions that you CAN put into place. It's imperative that you be able to manage the numbers of your business and track at least the basic information about your customers.

4. Retailing is Relationships...and Social Networking is hear to stay. Being engaging is no longer "nice", it's imperative. Our primary target market spends its days online and connected to each other. Mobile is the wave of the future--we have to prepare for the tide. Social networks are influence networks and your business needs to establish "outposts" in the virtual spaces where your customers spend their time: Face Book, Twitter, etc. If you're not sure how to start, talk to your students, go to the application website and click around, or stop a 12 year old on the street! Reach out. Let your customers know what you have to offer that will solve their problems or ease their pain. Make connections and nurture relationships.

Many campus retailers are doing good things and everything within their control. Some others are not putting 100% into the endeavor. The best time to take action is when times are GOOD. That's not the case now, I know. So let's say this is the second best time to take action. Regardless, take action we must!

- The Retail Muse

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