Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Retail is Hard

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Making of a teddy bear 3 filling
For years I've heard from many that working in retail is a breeze. Everyone has an opinion on how easy it would be to work at the cash register all day, or has these romantic notions of how much fun it would be to own a little shop by the seaside.

Customers also seem to have a wide range of advice of how to staff your store. What products to carry (and how many), and of course what your operating hours, pricing strategy and marketing programs should be. Everyone is an expert, especially when it comes to retailing.

I was reminded of this curious state of being recently. I was watching the UK version of "The Apprentice" on "YouTube". This British version, (now in it's 6Th season) is basically the original "Apprentice", sans Donald Trump and the addition of sometimes difficult to interpret accents.

The show follows the same format, with each team of apprentices sent out on weekly tasks to make money. In one episode, the teams are sent off to Harrods, billed as the largest department store in the world (7 floors! Luxury goods! something for everyone!). Teams were given the task of choosing items from Harrod's inventory and then sell them to unwitting tourists in special pop up units within the vast store.

Watching the teams perform this task made me realize how incredibly clueless this group of bankers and lawyers and entrepreneurs where about the mechanics of retail. One team learned that it is very difficult to choose products for resale. They settled on teddy bears - nothing else, including a $2000 mega stuffed bear. A dubious and ill advised choice. Then other team added more variety, but learned that merchandising products is not just about hanging one sad t-shirt on slat wall.

Both teams found pricing hard to figure out. All these accountants and business majors couldn't figure out the difference between cost and retail. They were lost on the concept of retail margin, and stared glumly at the point of sale equipment wondering what all the flashing lights meant.

By the time they started to actually operate their store, I was in heavy eye-rolling mode. One team member shrunk into the the woodwork, fearful of chatting with strangers. Another became panicked and aggressive, almost demanding frightened customers to buy a bear. Finally a team member couldn't take the pace any longer, snuck away to the stock room. As he rubbed his aching feet and moaned about how he has never spent this much time on his feet, he looked at the camera and said;

Retail is Hard!

Yes dear apprentice, sometimes it is.
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