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“99% pregnant” – misleading percentages in retail (Editorial from Internet Retailing Magazine, February 2008).

InternetRetailing‘s Editor in Chief, Ian Jindal, has been shopping hard this month and his experience at the sharp end of retail (handing over cash, rather than writing strategies) has made him ponder how retailers should respond to anticipated ‘percentage declines’ in sales.

Thanks to client engagements your Editor in Chief has had the opportunity to pound the malls, boutiques and ateliers of Hong Kong, London, New York and Manchester – all in the space of high carbon-footprint month. During my travels I’ve been both demonstrating best practice rich internet applications and spending times in some truly extraordinary retail venues – from the highest end of luxury outlets and malls in Hong Kong through discount and scale retailers in NYC, where luxury and mass-markets collide, and niche, one-outlet custom retailers in the UK. As a backdrop to this till-gazing my newsfeeds have kept me in touch with the statistics: ongoing fears of a consumer recession; growth in online sales over the Christmas season that show the channel taking an ever-greater proportion of retail sales and a mix of retail results, with some winners and a few losers whose sales have declined.

In my conversations with retailers there’s a general agreement that the “consumer situation” is going to be difficult through 2008 and that spring trading won’t help fashion retailers enough (after all, Spring/Summer goods have a lower cash value that the big winter coats and back to school outfits) and the electronics retailers lack a compelling product – no Xbox/Wii launch, no new operating system, no radical shift in computer power or screen technology. Even the DVD format war has fizzled to a conclusion.

In all, retailers are looking to proceed with caution, eye promotional activity and keen pricing as their lodestone in the difficult currents ahead – looking to steady sales or have a ‘managed decline’ while protecting margins. In a word – incrementalism.

I fear, though, that such stoicism and incrementalism will not serve retailers well: there’s no such thing as an average decline.

Customer behaviour is binary: they either buy or they do not. It’s not as if – faced by a reduced amount of free cash – a customer simply decides to spend £97 instead of £100. Clearly, retailer discounting may give that appearance (ie if we reduce prices) but the more worrying situation is that customers simply do not buy at all from us: a 100% discount!

This was obvious to me as I eavesdropped on the faithful in four different Apple stores fondling the new MacBook Air. Even early adopters acknowledge that the machine is underpowered but its impact is clear: it makes other options look undesirable and customers will wait for the ‘version 2’ rather than spend now or on an alternative. The message for rival products is “we don’t want it” not “we can’t afford it”.

Likewise, for clothing. Recent reports show that customer aspirations remain high even when cash is tight. The observed behaviour is that they’ll continue to buy high-end goods, but in lower quantities, and would fund the purchases by eschewing other non-essential purchases (ie reduced overall sales for the high end, zero sales at the lower end: no ‘average’ in sight!).

Luxury etailers, however, should not take this custom for granted. A quantitative survey by Conchango this month (covered on our portal) shows a catalogue of basic errors and shoddy customer experience. 30% of ordered goods did not arrive, and from a total score of 190 Estee Lauder (the best) only managed 109 and Dior held up the bottom with a lowly 56 (goods didn’t arrive).

The lessons from this are clear, obvious – and generally ignored. Back your products and marketing with great logistics.

The more difficult lesson though is to look through the aggregate behaviour of 100 customers and consider the unique experience of each of them: if we fail to communicate, inspire and delight then the customers’ wallets will stay firmly in their pockets. Aggregate percentage shifts in the market will disguise the fact that some retailers will take lots of money and others will see sales fall off a cliff.

A gynaecologist friend once remarked, one cannot be “99% pregnant” – you either are or you’re not. Likewise with retail in 2008: there’s no ‘99% successful’ – you’ll either make the sale or you won’t. In 2008 etail sales will need to be personal, and etailers must act accordingly.

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