Looking for new ideas to keep your store fresh and dynamic? Time to go shopping.

I admit it. I'm absolutely no fun to go shopping with.

The reason is simple. I'm not like other shoppers. I'm not like the mother out looking for the bargain for her family, or the kids looking for something exciting to catch their attention, or the dad on a mission to bring home the perfect gift. When I go shopping, I tend to see things a little differently than other shoppers. I tend to stop and linger on things, and make comments about things, that make little sense to whomever I'm with.

I'm a retailer, a retail consultant specifically, a student of retailing. I simply can't walk by a store, much less into a store, without trying to figure out what makes that store tick, how customers perceive the store, what that store does well, and what I can learn from them.

I love to stop and admire a particularly effective merchandise presentation, or watch a really talented sales associate work with a customer, or take in a really well thought-out cash wrap. I notice things, like how corners are lit, and how many units of an item are on display, and whether customers are happy to be there, or eager to complete their business and be on their way.

When I work with clients, I frequently ask them about who they consider their competitors, and how frequently they shop them. And the responses are usually pretty consistent. Most independent retailers have a clear sense of who their key competition is (though they may construe who their competition is far too narrowly), and they shop them frequently. But when you ask what they saw the last time they shopped the competition, too often I hear about problems, weaknesses, and how uncompetitive they are. It usually takes my prompting to get them to talk about what their competition does particularly well, and what can be learned from them.

The key to understanding your competition is to understand why their customers -- your potential customers -- view them as a preferable source for the products and services they offer. And it's not just your competition that you can learn from, it's every retailer that you encounter. Here are a few things that I look for when I visit a store:

* Who is their target customer, by gender, age, and income level? How do they entice their target customer to come into the store and shop?
* When you walk in the store, have they constructed a compelling visual presentation? What's the critical message they seek to communicate with that initial impression? How have they built out and appointed the store to reinforce that impression?
* What's the product/service niche they are trying to occupy? How clearly are they communicating their core competency? What level of customer service and product knowledge would customers require and/or expect based upon this niche? How do they lead their customers through their stores? What can their physical layout tell you about their traffic pattern, their merchandising strategy, and their dedication to customer service?
* What are their most important products or category of products? Where do they put them in the store? Do they view these items as destination items or impulse items? (Some of the most successful retailers are built around an ever-changing assortment of high impulse items.) What's the balance between highly identifiable branded goods, and unique, distinctive goods?
* What is their pricing strategy? Are they a price leader, commanding a premium price based on quality, cache, customer service and shopping experience? Or are they matching price, competing on location, availability and ease of shopping? Or are they competing directly on price, on being the lowest price?
* How are they staffed? Are there enough associates? Too many? Are their associates order-takers/register-ringers, or do they possess specialized knowledge and expertise? Are they focused on helping customers, or on other things?
* Is this a place just to buy things, or is it a place that exudes a personality, that's a fun place to be, where buying something is part of an overall experience? Are customers in and out quickly, or do they tend to linger?
* How well do they execute? Is the store neat and clean? How well are the displays maintained? Is the cash-wrap organized and clutter-free? Is the merchandise clearly signed and priced?
* How effective is their signage? What are they trying to accomplish with their signage, to reinforce the feeling of the store, or convey critical information? Is the signage particularly distinctive? What other methods are they using to reinforce the customers experience in the store?
* What merchandise displays are particularly compelling? Innovative? Why? How are they using lighting and other techniques to draw their customer's attention, and highlight specific presentations?
* How fast do they turn their inventory? Does the merchandise look fresh, or like it's been there a while? How well do they balance between building compelling merchandise displays and carrying more than they might reasonably expect to sell? What might this suggest about their vendor and supply chain structure?
* How clean are their assortments? Are they in pristine, never-shopped order? (I'm known to do a quick count of inventory on a table, shelf or rack, to see how much has sold down.) Is there a sea of markdowns? What's the balance between full-priced and markdown merchandise, and is that balance seasonally appropriate?
* What are customers buying? From observing customers at the cash-wrap, what can you learn about their likely units-per-transaction?
* What's the one idea I can take from this store and apply to my own business?

You may have a whole series of additional things that you look for when you walk in a store. No list can ever be complete. There's a reason why your competitor is your competitor, and it's critical that you understand what that reason is. But the skills of competitive shopping shouldn't just be applied to your direct competition. Rather, the key is to be a student of retailing, constantly looking for new ideas that you can apply, in your own way, to keep your store fresh and dynamic.