Putting the people back into retail marketing

Posted: April 26, 2022

Clicks and Bricks is now a 20-year-old cliché. COVID-19 catapulted consumers firmly into the domain of digital shopping, evidenced by the mushrooming of mega warehouses alongside our freeways. Aside from the obvious advantages of online shopping, we miss the vibrance and warm touch of the marketplace so ingrained in our human culture.

The classic five Ps of the retail marketing mix are well-known. Products, with their features and benefits, along with pricing, are easily mimicked by businesses competing for our money. It is hard to find truly superior value or uniqueness in these two Ps. Place, be it stores in the case of bricks, and websites in the case of clicks, presents an opportunity for differentiation, but most retail businesses wind up with shopping environments that are largely parity. Retail promotion has for generations essentially boiled down to ‘lines and prices’, be it via broadsheet, television or online in some way. The colour schemes may differ, but the promotional promises are largely parity.

And then there are people. The very old amongst us remember the days of the butcher, baker and candlestick makers who operated their stores with service underscored by their customers’ complete trust and confidence. This very trust and confidence bolstered by personal service generates profit. Price sensitivity in parity markets is reduced when customers trust their retailer. And, trust is earned by people, not computers.

Of course, as the generations have gone by, the personal touch has been replaced by the screen touch, with the people in retail environments being relegated to the rather poorly paid functions of shelf packing, cleaning and till operating. Oh, and occasionally dealing with a customer.

Yet, we live in a country where people are generally friendly, open and willing. But, it takes more than friendliness to deliver a personal touch in retail service delivery. Business owners need to enable their frontline staff. Their people need to be taught about the products on sale, how to engage with customers to establish their needs, and how to match the right product to these needs appropriately and honestly.

On top of these fundamental services and sales skills, owners of retail establishments must develop a climate and culture in their business that truly enables high energy and engagement amongst their frontline personnel. Highly engaged staff, ensure highly satisfied customers, with commensurate brand loyalty. Feet in-store, especially repeat purchasing feet in-store, is ultimately the route to retail success.

No matter how hard the clicks marketplaces try to provide personal service through call centres, chatbots and the likes, these will never be an adequate replacement for a human heartbeat in the flesh. Attentive, knowledgeable and responsive frontline retail personnel will undoubtedly be a competitive advantage that bricks ultimately deliver against clicks.

But, there is a long way to go. As most South African consumers will report, frontline retail service offerings are, in general, best described as mediocre. Hopefully, retail operation leaders will recognise this opportunity for competitive advantage and apply strategic priority to developing their frontline employees’ skills and engagement levels.