Retail: First Impressions Count and The Online Advantage

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Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

First impressions count and are rarely more important than in the retail environment. You probably won’t be too comforted (or surprised) to learn that this is an area where traditional retailers are at a massive disadvantage to their online contemporaries. It’s also an area where many traditional retailers let themselves down badly.

You don’t need to walk too far down any high street to see a list of quite frankly lazy retail mistakes. Mistakes like irregular opening hours, permanent sales, poor signage, cluttered displays, lack of stock, bad lighting, dismal window displays and lackluster customer service presented by surly staff with limited product knowledge are driving people online in their droves.

And this is before you factor in conditions that may actually be out of your control like the weather or the cost of parking.

Understanding the online advantage and how Internet retailers drive sales is key to winning customers back and keeping them coming back for more.

The Online Advantage

Selling online isn’t as cheap or as easy as many high street businesses would believe. Despite the fact that many online retailers enjoy lower business rates and rents than their high street competitors, they do have to pay for the privilege of visitors landing on their website. Driving traffic, via paid search networks, comparison shopping engines, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and email marketing, etc., to a website and maintaining customer loyalty online is an expensive business. Successful online retailers understand that this investment (and any profit it generates) can be lost in the brief second it takes a customer to click their mouse and visit another page. Even in the “low cost” retail environment, a bad first impression can be an expensive mistake. Because of this, online retailers are rarely complacent about how their customers perceive their businesses, investing millions of dollars each year in usability, conversion and analytics (tracking people from the moment they enter a site until the moment they leave and even beyond).

When a customer lands on a website, what they see is often very different from the reality of the online operations true situation.

A website’s front end (the bit the consumer sees) is essentially just a glossy skin pulled tight over several pieces of clever technology bolted together (often very clumsily from a technology point of view) to ensure as near a seamless shopping experience as possible. It is very easy to make even the cheapest web-based shopping technology look very professional. Behind the sleek exterior is a different story — but nobody see that, so it doesn’t matter.

Nobody cares what an online retailer’s warehouse looks like, where it is located and whether or not the warehouse team member picking and packing your purchases has had a good wash and shave that morning (or even that week).

Of the many online retailers’ warehouses I have personally visited very few of them fall into the multi-million pound, high-tech, temperature-controlled, county-sized facilities operated by the likes of Amazon. Most are freezing cold sheds, situated on less than salubrious industrial estates in the outer most corners of the UK. But this doesn’t matter. No matter what state the online retailers’ backroom operations are in, it is very easy for them to throw up a highly professional, completely flexible façade to sell from behind.

When you shop online you don’t see the warehouse manager sharing a crafty cigarette with the forklift driver in the car park or hear any unprofessional language coming from the man wearing the Hooters t-shirt while pulling items from the shelf and wrapping them in bubble wrap prior to dispatch. In fact online retail tends to be quite anonymous — this helps them keep costs down and maintain margins despite heavy discounting. In fact online retail is so anonymous that many customers judge their service entirely on the quality of the courier (a third party) who delivers their packages.

Online retailers have the advantage of being able to change the appearance of their virtual shop windows in a click. Sophisticated online stores will even be able to match the appearance of their store to the individual customers liking based on previous purchases and visits. Imagine being able to show a bespoke window display to everyone who passes your shop. This is what traditional retailers are up against — but it gets worse for the traditional retailer.

Finding any item online is seldom more arduous than a couple of clicks of a mouse. Online shoppers rarely enter an online shop via the front door (or home page). More often than not, they arrive from a quick search on a search engine like Google and land directly on the product or category page of the specific item they are interested in. On landing the online shopper is then presented with a series of mechanisms deployed to help the consumer make their decision and buy quickly. These mechanisms include compelling sales copy including detailed product descriptions (which can often include technical specifications that can shame even the most knowledgeable sales assistant), the promise of rapid, cheap (or even free) delivery, high resolution product images (which may even allow the viewer to rotate the image and zoom-in to view any fine detail), independent product reviews and suggestions for further purchases.

Thanks to advances in e-commerce technology even the smallest online retailers can offer their customers a really seamless experience, allowing them to search, find and purchase within a few clicks of a mouse (or increasingly a few taps on the screen of a tablet device or mobile phone).

When you take all of this into consideration, you’ll understand why it is time to lift your game and start fighting back.

So what does this mean for traditional retailers?

It means they always have to be at the top of their game. It means they need to get staffing levels right at busy times so customers are served promptly and professionally. It means sales associates need to be trained and ready to help customers with difficult questions. It means window displays are enticing and changed regularly and signage is clear and informative. It also means premises need to be clean and bright and shelve are also well stocked.

Eight Lazy Retail Mistakes That Will Kill Your Business

1. Irregular Opening Hours: If your customers are in full-time employment, have children or generally lead busy lives (and who doesn’t these days?), you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for them to shop with you. This means being open and at your most efficient (i.e., having the optimum number of staff members available to serve your customers in a courteous, professional and timely manner) at times when your patrons find it most convenient to visit your premises. This, depending on your clients’ preferences, might mean opening at lunchtime, before and after the school run, in the evenings, on weekends and on public holidays. This also means planning your day to suit your customers’ needs and not your own or those of your staff. Your staff should not be taking an extended break at lunchtime when the majority of your customers enter your shop. Or worse still, if you are one of those retailers who nips out for a sandwich at lunchtime, leaving a “Back in 15 minutes” sign in the window, and then wonders why trade is so slow in the afternoon — it’s time to get more organized in the morning. A customer with only an hour to spare at lunchtime will quickly learn not to visit your shop if its opening times are not reliable. Smaller retailers who perhaps do not have the staffing levels to stay open all hours should select slower trading periods to close, clearly publicize their opening times and stick to them rigidly. Very few customers will begrudge you closing on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon if you are available throughout the weekend and late into the evenings. They’ll be even happier if they can shop with you outside of normal trading hours. This is why a good online presence is so important for today’s high street retailers –something we will be exploring throughout this book.

2. Bad Lighting/Poor Window Displays: If your shop is badly lit or your window display fails to deliver, it will almost certainly have poor “curb appeal” and may even appear to passing shoppers as closed or out of business. Decent curb appeal doesn’t only apply to passing motorists who need to see a shop, be made aware that it is open for business and be persuaded to pull over and find (and potentially pay for) a parking space in the brief couple of seconds it takes to drive past. The appearance of a warm, inviting shop window might just be enough to persuade a tired, heavily laden shopper on a cold, damp Saturday afternoon to walk that last 20 yards or cross a busy road to your shop door.

3. Permanent Sales: Too many retailers rely on attracting punters with seemingly never-ending sales, and as a result, the sales price becomes the full price. Once you have cut your margins to the bone, where do you go? A sale should be an event your customers look forward to and an opportunity for you to clear old, slow-moving or end-of-line stock. While there is nothing wrong with a permanent sale rail, the promise of a regular, extended sales period will ultimately damage your reputation and make it virtually impossible to sell anything at full price. It is much better to be known for offering good value, excellent customer service and detailed product knowledge (these are things you can charge a premium for) than for being a cheap shop that is all too ready to shred its margins and drop its prices.

4. Cluttered Displays: Many retailers believe in the concept of piling their products high and selling them cheap. This can have its advantages. It is better to have products on the shop floor, where they can be seen and therefore purchased, than languishing in the warehouse. But it can get to the stage where customers become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stock. Conversely, too much unfilled space can leave a shop looking empty and unloved or even on the brink of closure, which will damage consumer confidence in your business. Successful retailers will find a balance that makes their customers feel comfortable and makes selecting products easy and as stress-free as possible.

5. The Apologetic Sale: Have you ever heard yourself or a member of your staff commenting on or even apologizing for the price of an item or the lack of choice available in your store? You should never be sorry when selling an item to someone. An apology insinuates your products aren’t worth the price displayed. Your products should always offer value to your customers (and this doesn’t always mean low prices).

6. Surly Staff: Do your employees mope around behind the counter, trying to avoid eye contact with your customers? Can you see them from the street, looking bored and underemployed? You should be paying these people to be courteous and welcoming to your customers. Instead, you might be paying them to simply turn your customers away. Do your staff greet your customers while standing in a huddled group, smoking cigarettes in your doorway? This is bad enough if you sell home and garden or fashion items (one of the joys of buying a new product is that lovely, box fresh, smell), and simply unforgivable if you sell foodstuffs. If you or your staff must smoke, find a place out of sight from your customers for cigarette breaks.

7. Poor Product Knowledge: Potential customers may only hit the high street because they need a little hand-holding. This will be particularly true for retailers selling high-ticket or complicated items, such as consumer electronics, household electrical items or home improvement (DIY) products. Sadly, many (often quite large) retailers who trade in these kind of items deliver little in the way of training or incentive to their sales staff to offer their customers the level of reassurance they need to make a purchase.

8. Poor Payment Options: In this day and age, it is unacceptable not to accept credit or debit card payments — end of story.

While the above failings might seem (to some) inconsequential they can have severe repercussions beyond a minor inconvenience for your customers. Once a customer decides to look elsewhere, it can be very difficult (or even impossible) to win them back. If their experience is really poor, you should be in little doubt that they will share it with friends and family or, worse still, via social media (the modern equivalent of word of mouth). These are problems online retailers (who are certainly not immune to criticism) understand well and invest time, money and resource to tackle. Great bricks and mortar retailers understand this, the rest sweep their problems under the carpet and point the finger of blame at factors beyond their control.

What bad retail habits could you change today to ensure a brighter tomorrow?

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Bricks and Mortar Oughta

This abridged text is taken from the book Bricks & Mortar Oughta: What Real World Businesses Can Learn from the Internet.

Written by

Marketing Strategist, Author of #BecomingTHEExpert, Content Marketing Trainer, and Cyclist. Check out my author profile:

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