In my role as advisor to small businesses, I often hear first-hand the challenges and failures of retail store owners who fear the advantages of online and feel the exodus to Internet eCommerce, led by Amazon and Ebay.
Ironically, the most common desire I hear from entrepreneurs selling wholly online, is the need for their entry into retail, as the next step in their growth strategy. My angel investor friends ask me why struggling new venture founders all think retail is a good deal today.
What neither group seems to fully comprehend is that retail needs to fundamentally change to succeed, far beyond the addition of an online component, to meet the experience expectations of today's generation, an oversupplied global marketplace, and technology for instant pricing and distribution.
Many pundits are already talking about a "retail apocalypse" that has already started.
In an effort to learn a bit more about this phenomenon, and how to capitalize on it rather than fight it, I just completed a new book, Retail's Seismic Shift by Michael Dart, with Robin Lewis.
Dart and Lewis should know, since both have over twenty-five years of experience consulting with dozens of retail and consumer product companies, old and new.
Here is my summary of the strategies they recommend and I preach to retailers and eCommerce companies alike to meet the challenges ahead and thrive:
1. Demonstrate a willingness to break "business as usual."
Test new things and keep testing in your market for things that work. There is no magic, and things change so fast that you can't count on things that worked for you in the past. Companies that are constantly looking forward, rather than backward, are going to be victorious.
2. Encourage and reward out-of-the-company thinking.
Make sure everyone is curious and open, and not getting stuck with ideas from inside your company. People must be measured in performance reviews against industry best practices, rather than previous results in your business.
I worked with a company a while back who showed me they were improving productivity every period, against their own numbers, but were losing the race to competitors.
3. Measure your agility by putting metrics on change.
Old views of change rates are no longer competitive. Don't allow a subjective view to cloud your reality. Count the number of new projects, time and resources required to implement, and measure the return in revenue, customer satisfaction, or cost savings. Look outside for benchmarks.
4. Abandon the concept of "cookie-cutter" stores.
These days, you need different retail layouts and sizes for urban communities versus small neighborhood communities. Some may have no product at all for carry-out, with demonstrations and iPads for ordering and delivery the next day. Others highlight upscale styles, or complement nearby stores.
5. Create a non-online memorable customer experience.
Only retail can provide real people relationships, and they better be memorable on the positive side. Find your niche, and it's probably not competing on price and volume alone. These days, customers expect a focus on a higher cause, such as sustainability or social improvement.
6. Look for growth in emerging global market geographies.
Rather than saturating your coverage of a single geography, use technology and the low cost of global manufacturing to cherry-pick new opportunities. There will always be markets where the culture, income levels, or the products don't lend themselves to online.
7. Build a community with face-to-face between customers.
Smart retail stores sponsor live events, peer-help sessions, and customer demonstrations to create great experiences and opportunities for people to feel community with others that they could never find online. Perhaps they need to add a coffee bar, or other entertainment options.
The time to start for new ventures is at the beginning, when you can set the right team culture, and before biases are set. For existing businesses, it's harder. You have to break things, change people, and build some new habits yourself to be the right role model.
The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but if you can't get over the fence quickly, your business won't live for you to enjoy it.