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Fiddling while retail burns

business, strategy, processOn a daily, if not hourly basis, we hear and see the woes of modern-day retail, including perceptions and anecdotes about why they might be erring. If not blamed on cyber sales, it is the fault of past faux pas or the dreaded economy. Even the incredulous idea of implicating climate change is bandied about.

None of these scapegoats are new – they have affected sales one way or another since time immemorial without causing the decline of iconic brands.

Are the fundamentals ignored in the clamour to apportion blame? Is there a predisposition to pursue the limelight rather than getting down to brass tacks to redress crippling issues? Akin to the contemporary Nero, who fiddles while their retail burns?

Here are some of today’s fiddle repertoire:

  • Talent: Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the industry is not addressing the dire shortage of accomplished retailers. The scarcity comes from a period of favouring protocols where precious few rookies obtain mutually advantageous consideration. Those with the greatest potential are lost to other industries prepared to invest in their future. Fast-track schemes and student internships do little to replace the years of experience necessary to develop savvy retailers. The upper echelons are still filled with examples of leaders who have worked their way up through the ranks and who are leagues ahead of their counterparts. Why is it that so few outside of retail are tempted to cross the Rubicon –and less still are hired by retailers?
  • New Era: Online set-up, operational and maintenance costs continue to rise exponentially as technology and fickle trading conditions battle to keep up with a transient market. Do customers spend more? Or is it just more people spending, adding to the cost of servicing dismal basket sizes to multitudinous destinations? Volumes are not there and comparable sales are not improving to justify further outlay because of the cannibalisation effect on bricks and mortar. How do we rationalise a concept that gives customers an option to avoid the temptation and seduction of instore sensory? A significant percentage increase in online sales (off a low base) contradicts the meagre actual percentages being revealed of late; a terminal indictment of distracted leadership? Social media are an exponential form of communication in attracting the populace to a brand, yet many still choose to subsidise online markets in the prophetic hope of soliciting indeterminate sales.
  • Community: Without a doubt the most important aspect for any retailer, and yet so very few do anything other than pay lip service. This is not about raising money by fleecing customers to settle social dues or placate a collective conscience. The fact that many go on to use such monies as a public relation opportunity is damning in itself. We need to engage our local neighbourhoods through inclusive and meaningful employment, especially those sidelined by differing ability and social prejudice. Developing an intimate understanding of what we can do to improve experiences in education, health and socio-economic influences.
  • Team: This plays a vital role in delivering results and developing a purposeful culture. However, the staged and organised team-building activities shared on social networks and practiced on learning and development courses are superficial and uncomfortable at best. Establishing a high functioning team comes from practical mentorship, interactive participation and ownership from the get-go that includes planning, accountability, execution and goals. Camaraderie develops over time by celebrating accomplishments and accepting failure as a positive option.
  • Overheads: The robbing of Peter to pay Paul syndrome. Choosing to ignore the real cost of under-resourcing to deliver effective outcomes. Large and burdensome head office structures filled with nice-to-have roles instead of bare essential store support services. The cutting of prerequisites without consideration of repercussion that often end up in the convenience of the black hole of hidden cost. The inevitable victim of restricted resource is the customer, and to assume they aren’t aware of this is foolhardy. Cold fact.

Surely the time has come to drop modern narcissistic tendencies and start dealing with the nitty gritty of retail.

Dave Farrell is a retailer with three decades of experience on three continents. He can be reached at

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