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Every week brings more bad news about the high street. And today we heard about House of Fraser closing 31 stores and with it the loss of up to 6,000 jobs.

And as I’m writing this Sky News is reporting that another high street retailer is possibly going into Administration.

We are now used to hearing, profits are below expectations, it remains a challenging market and foot fall and with-it consumer spending is down. All of which are true.

Almost inevitably the result will be a “strategic review” of the business model which is nearly always accompanied by announcements of store closures and redundancies, the latter of which leads to a more disappointing customer experience accompanied by “I’ll look on line”. How often have you been in a store and been unable to find an assistant to speak too? More often than not I would wager.

The reason why the high street is facing difficulties is well documented. Changes in customer spending patterns and shopping habits, ever increasing costs, primarily rates, a lack of consumer confidence in the economy and of course the biggest threat, the internet and with it the ease of being able to shop when you want, from where you are with the items purchased delivered to an address of your choosing.

The inevitability of continued high street decline almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet there is one substantial but massively underplayed advantage that the high street has over online retailing. Whilst by itself it will not totally halt the decline, it will certainly allow high street retailers to fight back.

What is it? Their staff and by that, I mean the employees, particularly the Retail Assistants and Customer Service Assistants who work “in store, on the floor”.

Retail work is often perceived as being towards the bottom end of employment choices. It has little social standing and is seen, I suspect by customers, those who undertake the role/ s and their employer’s as being of limited value. Employees who work in shops can always be replaced.

Such thinking is fundamentally wrong. Not only does it undervalue the person doing the work, crucially it misses the opportunity that the role presents to enhance the customer experience and increase sales.

After all, the experience the customer receives in store can make or break their relationship with that retailer.

So, what can retail organisations do to address this? My six suggestions won’t solve all the problems that high street retailers have but will I believe assist in halting the decline. And they are all relatively simple to introduce and are not overly expensive.

  1. Elevate the status of the Customer Assistant role in the eyes of the job holder and the customer.

Steps that can be taken include training staff in both customer service and sales skills, empowerment and how to raise their personal esteem, as well as revisiting existing methods of engaging with staff. If employees feel good about their role they perform better and, in this context, a Customer Assistant who feels more valued, will mean they are more engaged with the customer which will lead to more sales.

  1. Train all retail staff in the importance of customer service. And having trained them hold regular refresher sessions. Better still, get the input of staff, and possibly customers, into this training. Bite size sessions would probably work best.
  1. Improve or introduce product knowledge training for all staff. And make this a continued process. Employees can be encouraged to become “Product Masters”, responsible for briefing their colleagues in particular product lines. This will increase both their confidence and experience as well as staff knowledge.

A customer who visits a store and engages with a knowledgeable Customer Assistant is more likely to buy.

  1. Think sales. In order to think sales, staff must view the role as being a sales role and not somebody who replenishes stock and be trained in retail sales techniques.

If a customer enters a store more often than not it is because they want to purchase a particular item or are thinking about purchasing. They are a warm lead waiting to buy. Maximise the opportunity by thinking sales, it’s a mindset. And I haven’t even addressed the up-selling opportunities this presents.

  1. Take steps to make the customer feel welcome and valued.

Enhance the customer experience by making them feel important when they enter the store. Follow the lead of American retailers and introduce Greeters. How good would you feel if you walked into a retail store and were met by a smiling employee and “Hello madam/sir, welcome to Marks and Spencer’s / B&Q / Tesco thank you for shopping with us today, can I direct you to a particular area of the store ….” and with that has started the process of engaging with customers. Remember, happy shoppers spend more money.

I accept that some customers may find this irritating, but what is there to lose? If it isn’t working, stop it.

  1. Provide the option of personal shoppers.

Available in high end retailers, why not make this service more readily available on the high street. Not only will the customer feel important and value the experience it’s a great opportunity to sell to a customer with whom you have already engaged.

Will introducing any or all of these six suggestions stop the decline in high street sales? Probably not. Will it halt the decline? Possibly.

Customers are an organisations most important source of income and staff the organisations most important asset. Utilising the full potential of staff to sell more has got to be a “win – win”. What have retailers got to lose? Actually nothing.

Colin Lock- June 2018

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