Letter from the Editor: Traffic Report

We’ve endured some pretty scary moments during this recession. I’ve talked to retailers that have never faced such depressed traffic and sales. Stunned by how abruptly the tap turned off, most are struggling to find ways to lure shoppers back into their stores now that all the holiday price promotions have faded.

Depressed as the current situation may be, smart retailers know that this too shall pass. Customers are still out there looking to buy. There are fewer of them, to be sure, and they are carefully scrutinizing each and every purchase in ways not seen for decades.

So the question is, will they find what they’re looking for? Will they abandon traditional haunts in favor of lower-cost options? Clearly, the shifting economic winds mean that the old rules no longer apply. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and that means a top-to-bottom review of everything from store environment to merchandise to service.

Here are some steps that will help retailers drive traffic in these troubled times:

I would urge all retailers to spend more time on the selling floor. Less traffic means more time to talk to your customers and get a handle on what they are thinking, what they are looking for and what they are willing to pay. The era of the big-ticket spend is over for most consumers. Retailers of all stripes need to understand how their customer has changed. If most shoppers are searching for better value, retailers would be wise to figure out exactly what that means. Listen and learn.

I’ve visited many stores lately and I’ve found two distinctly different and problematic service approaches that predominate during this critical time. One, the “I’m going to kill you with attention” approach, smacks of desperation. It is uncomfortably pushy. The other, “I’m so bored because nothing is happening here,” is equally off-putting. Your sales people are your eyes and ears. Your future depends on them. I would urge all operators to offer staff training to deal with the new realities of the marketplace. Find out what works for your shoppers and adjust the message accordingly.

Crazy price promotions only hold power if used sparingly. Today, heavy discounts are ubiquitous, and most of them are spoiling margins and confusing stressed-out shoppers. Retailers need to turn a new page and emphasize value in place of highly reactive discounting. Consumers are not going to part with their hard-earned cash if retailers aren’t offering the best, most unique product at competitive prices. The value proposition needs to start at the wholesale level. The vendors that work with their retail partners to deliver the most attractively priced product possible will be the big winners.

The wildly promotional environment has created a mess on the selling floor. Too many retailers have turned whole chunks of the floor over to sale racks. Lost in the translation is any sense of an overall merchandising plan and a solid showcase for new items. It’s critical that retailers now define who they are and what they offer. This can’t happen in a cluttered, confusing environment. Make sure the fresh, full-margin merchandise is always in the spotlight.

Certain brands have sold well during the recession. They typically are the labels that fill a viable niche and offer true value to both retailer and consumer. Retailers need to focus on items that create a sense of freshness and generate excitement. New product will always be the lifeblood, but buyers have to be careful to find the right items that offer fashion, fun and value. At the same time, there are some classic brands that will sell no matter what is going on in the world. It’s all about finding the perfect mix.

Too many retailers fail to realize that they can partner with consumers to make shopping a more interesting, exciting and palatable activity — even in these troubling times. Create in-store events that allow people to feel good about shopping again. Raise the level of personal attention for your best customers. Set up or revive a layaway plan. Ask designers to do trunk shows. Team up with a local charity to create goodwill. Offer discounts to customers who haven’t shopped in a while. Enhance the Web site. So many retailers could work harder at helping their customers feel better and smarter.

This is no time to wallow in the bad news. Keep pushing ahead. Good things will come.

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