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Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that if you put lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig!

It’s this time of the year - post-beach lounging and reflection - that I mull over with industry colleagues the list of retailers who have dug themselves deep into trouble and those who will be lucky to survive the coming year. 

Holiday reflection is not just for me as it’s also the time of year for retailers and brand owners in their droves to initiate brand “repositioning” or a brief to “build the brand” so the customer knows why to choose them. It’s the time then for putting lipstick on a pig. The time when all the trouble starts.

There is a hell of a lot more to being successful than the look of your advertising and the story you want to tell your shopper. And reasons for retailer failure are definitely not limited to new entrants destroying your business, banks over extending your facility or even the exchange rate being unfavourable.

Retail success or failure is largely due to factors within your control, the most apparent being the relevance and differentiation of your offer.

Mountain Design has gone into receivership in NZ. Shanton has up to nine interested parties willing to pull it up. Watching Pumpkin Patch continue to spiral is just sad. But pause to consider their relevance and differentiation vs. their competitors and their demise is not altogether surprising.

Many businesses sliding down the slippery slope have lost their market relevance and no amount of lipstick is going to make their pig look any better.
Brands are a collection of perceptions and expectations in the mind of the shopper. A strong successful retail brand is one that shoppers know, like and trust. These emotions are built from a ping-pong of interactions that they have with your brand. It’s not your TV ad, or your Facebook page, but the collection of every touchpoint a shopper experiences with you.

Sales assistants, store environment, signage as I drive by, products, what other people say about you…the list goes on. 

New fixtures and signage won’t recover a stale product range that is same/same as the guy across the road. Nor will it make up for poor stock weight and uncared for merchandise. Saying you are the best or the expert don’t mean diddly if your training and engagement programme doesn’t enable your team to deliver on that promise. 

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Shoppers love brands

Retailers and their brand can quickly lose their way but a little focus will ensure you do more than apply Chanel Rouge Noir on your store (and that ain’t cheap).

Having a clear product & merchandise strategy…. including injections of new (so there are reasons to revisit). As a retailer you may be selling a branded product that can be bought elsewhere. Exclusives, new ranges, curated ranges, good/better/best. Think about it people, it’s a simple equation. Stuff you sell = Reason people come.

Being very clear about the difference you make in your customers life…… and the execution that brings this clearly to life. If you are confused and can’t explain it then neither can the shopper. Nor can your teams deliver to the standard required. Nor can your systems and processes be optimised to deliver the business strategy.

Respecting your store and technology……a big point of failure for NZ retailers has been lack of investment in their store and their technology infrastructure. When you have a weak backbone the customer feels it from the way you serve. Why the heck can’t you look up stock and see if another store has my size? Why can’t you offer me online shopping and click and collect as well as bricks and mortar shopping?

It’s also felt in the way you deliver. Sorry, yes we are still out of stock. Sorry I don’t have any idea if we have that product.

The compound impact is really felt when you have limited capex to invest and technology and stores have been poorly maintained. You haven’t cared for your business and that impacts shopper and makes competitive offers look mighty shiny and attractive.

Inconsistent communications and conversations….. pull back on dialogue with shoppers and lo and behold, shoppers think you have gone out of business. You slip off the shopping list and out of repertoire. The correlation between customer engagement and activity to engage is obvious.

Let’s also try and avoid tendency to swing into product, price, and promotion without any sense of building a story that articulates why a shopper should choose you; how you are going to make a difference to their world.

In our global retail landscape it is dog eat dog. Smart slick international competitors are landing on our shores in droves (or drones) and online shopping, social media, shopper savviness and the proliferation of choice means the bar has never been higher. And guess what? It is still going up.

If your offer is vanilla and the competitors to your left and right are vanilla-choc chip with a swirl of chocolate sauce; who’s going to look more attractive?

Stop putting lipstick on pigs and listening only to the stories you tell yourself. Better understand the market and really know your customers with clarity – not just everyone with a pulse aged 18-54.  Merchandise is the lifeblood of a retail business so work hard to get that winning product formula, evolve it and deliver with clarity, consistency and cohesiveness.

That’s when, and only when, a well articulated brand proposition isn’t lipstick, it’s actually icing on a cake. A very successful, sought after cake.

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