Are retailers their own worst enemy? The shop windows say everything

I remember presenting to a national women’s retail group in a major Melbourne shopping centre over 20 years ago and telling them that if they looked around the shopping centre (like I had just done), they would find only two retailers giving prospective customers a “non-price” reason to enter their shop.

One was The Body Shop, talking about its commitment to the environment, and the other was a jeweller, offering free cleaning and polishing for life. Every other shop (and there were over 200 in the centre) either had “SALE” or some type of discount, or just products and prices, in the window.

I happened to be telling that story to a group of retailers in a shopping centre in Brisbane last year and I realised that NOTHING HAD CHANGED. The discounts of 20-30 per cent in the 90s have been replaced by 50-60 per cent off today. And there are still very few retailers giving consumers any reason other than price to come into their shop.

Retailers constantly complain about consumers being too preoccupied with price and say this has been exacerbated by the impact of the internet. I say rubbish. Retailers are more preoccupied about price than their customers are. They spend their lives educating the consumer to screw them on price and then complain when they come in and do it.

This was a stupid activity 20 years ago but is even more stupid today because if the consumer was really preoccupied with price, they would all shop online anyway. But they don’t. Retail shopping is a social experience and will never be totally eliminated by the internet.

But the profitability of retailers will be determined by their messages to the marketplace and today’s point of sale says nothing more than price is the most important thing.

When I work with a retail or franchise group and ask them to brainstorm all the “non-price” reasons to shop there, they come up with heaps of benefits, but very few are communicated at point of sale.

Here’s one that irks me in the café industry.

If you are a regular coffee-drinker you can tell the difference between a cappuccino made by a barista and one made by an untrained staff member. I have walked through shopping centres and street malls and I am yet to see a sign that says “our coffees are made by professionally trained baristas”.

If one café in a food court had that sign and the others didn’t, I would certainly go there for my coffee.

I think it’s a joke that the only café in Australia that advertises its coffee is made by fully trained baristas…is McDonald’s.
How hard is it to communicate some non-price benefits at point of sale?

If you are an Australian business competing with multinationals, tell people you are Australian-owned and the profits stay in Australia. If you support a local organisation or charity, tell people that via signage. If you are a jeweller and offer free cleaning and polishing for life (as almost every jeweller does), put it in your window!

A few years ago, I was working with a group of optometrists (who learned everything at university except how to run a retail business) and was asked what I would put in my window if I was an optometrist rather than “buy one, get one free”?

Here’s what I’d put: “Thinking of getting married? Come in for an eye test. You might change your mind.”

Everything we have ever been taught in marketing is about being different to our competition and communicating our advantages. When I look around major shopping centres, the only thing difference between shops is the colours. They all offer discounts and incentives and say they are the best.

Wake up, retailers! Everything has changed in the past 20 years…except retail windows. The price shoppers that these windows are aimed at have all gone online anyway.

The internet is not a threat to bricks-and-mortar retail. Retail is its own worst enemy!

Martin Grunstein is a customer service expert and in-demand speaker who has achieved results with over 500 companies across over 100 industries.



  1. Paul posted on February 14, 2019

    Thanks Martin - those notes are of value - something you spruik about in the article

  2. Megan Tregilgas posted on February 14, 2019

    Great Article Martin- As a Visual Merchandising Company we acknowledge the importance and the strength in investing in your Window and Displays. I have had the experience that an eye catching window increased sales by 70% in the first week. Its what attracts customers into the store, keeps it interesting and a perfect frame to tell your story. Happy to assist any retailers out there with any display needs check Double Impact Displays out We do national runs and all manufactured in Sydney. Look forward to hearing from you. Megan

  3. Warren Beaumont posted on February 15, 2019

    Very good article. The standard of retail merchandising in Sydney/The Blue Mountains in NSW has plummeted over the last 30 years with cluttered windows and/or huge discount signs, even for high-end merchandise. I've noticed that when a smart retailer takes over these stores and shows great product visually, they are reaping the benefits with more customers. And cafes are some of the worst offenders with a trend to not using the coffee brand merchandising or much signage at all.

  4. Erica posted on April 1, 2019

    What a pearler of an article, well written. Thank you. We opted out of our Retail business last year as we felt the group was going backwards.We found it extremely hard to change the mindset of head office.

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