For 21 years, I was a consumer journalist, researching and reporting on the products and service from UK businesses. Some of my time was devoted to looking at retail outlets such as HMV and Comet. But that was some time ago now, when customers were plentiful, and all companies had to do was have stock in their shops, and a reasonably efficient way of taking people's money.
That was then. Now everything is different, with shop closures being announced on a daily basis. They are inevitable casualties of the way things are. But are they really? There are many retailers who are doing just fine. Is it the impact of the of the internet then? Well, maybe not that either, since only 9% of retail sales last year were online. Maybe it's the economy. Well, that makes some sense, since everyone is feeling the pinch, though the British Retail Consortium reported a 0.3% increase in like-for like retail sales in December 2012 compared to December 2011. That's not the harbinger of retail armageddon.
So what is going wrong? Why are some retailers going down like a house of cards while others are flush with success?
I believe it's mainly to do with how the businesses are run. In short, it's a management failure. It's a failure to see how consumer expectations are changing. It's a failure to react to changes in consumer behaviour. It's a failure to blend online services into the in-store offering (what used to be called "clicks and mortar"). Most of all, it's a failure to recognise that simply having a shop full of stock, with low-paid and untrained staff is a fast-track to administration.
What do the survivors do that the casualties don't? Here's my checklist of ten key survival factors:
1) They treat their customers with respect.
2) They offer advice from well-trained expert staff.
3) They employ staff who are enthusiastic users of the products, and proud of them.
4) They incorporate online features into their shops, allowing ordering online and pickup in-store, as well as returns from online orders in the stores themselves.
5) They create shops that people want to visit.
6) They have thriving online communities, with staff offering advice.
7) They involve customers in decisions about service levels.
8) They create customer advocates.
9) They know exactly what their customers want.
10) They react immediately to customer demand.
You get the picture. If you don't, visit an Apple store, or Abercrombie and Fitch. The picture to the right shows part of the queue outside their store in Paris. People waited over an hour to get in. Do you think that store will survive?