Rescuing retail

The retail news is bad – consumer spending is dropping and the remaining customers are going online, eBay is taunting the big retailers who in turn are threatening to set up China-based online stores.

Are things really that bad for the bricks and mortar retailer? Are the suburban malls and high street stores doomed?

Maybe not.

In New York on the weekend, Vic’s Meats, a butcher in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, won the retail prize at the Interior Design magazine’s Best Of Year awards for their Victor Churchill retail outlet.

Vic’s Meats show how retailers can succeed in a sector going through fundamental changes.

The last 40 years have been tough for butchers as many of the traditional operators went to the wall as the sector struggled with supermarkets selling cheaper pre-packaged cuts and changing hygiene standards.

Butchers who moved up the value chain and focused on delivering high quality product survived. That same process is now happening in a similar way in other retail sectors as more efficient, convenient and cheaper providers change their markets.

At the moment we’re seeing two contradictory trends, a move to commoditised, global markets driven mainly on price and niche markets based around convenience, locality and service. The struggle right now is for established players like Myer, Harvey Norman and local retailers to understand where they fit in this system.

Vic’s Meats have figured out where they sit in their market and their lessons are valuable for other business owners figuring where their place is in this new retail world.

You have to be online

Even if you have no intention to sell online or overseas, your customers are still looking for you online.

It’s absolutely essential, regardless of what you do, to have a basic web presence. Even existing customers are looking up your details on the web when they forget your phone number and if you aren’t there, they may find your competitor’s.

We’ve previously covered what the basics of an online presence are. Make sure you have a Google Places account, Facebook page and a basic website so people can find you.

You have to be telling your story

Whether you have the best meat, the freshest doughnuts or the fastest lawn mowing service in town then you need to be loud and you need to proud ¬– let the world know about it.

Your website needs to say why customers should trust you and why it’s worth spending more with you than with the cheaper guy in the next suburb or continent.

One particular bugbear are bland and anonymous “about us” pages on many business websites which tell nothing about the business or the people behind it.

Your About Us page should tell the journey of why you were driven to become the best butcher, doughnut seller or lawn mower in your district. Leave the robotic mission statements to the big corporations and celebrate your competitive strengths.

You won’t win on price

The online channels don’t have the cost structures of bricks and mortar stores and that’s nothing new as small retailers have had to compete with the big chains’ economies of scale for years.

So don’t bother. Sell your story, your quality, your passion and your knowledge.

Be a resource

Engage with your local market. If there are changes, issues or events that affect your neighbourhood or market, update your site to reflect this and use social media like Twitter updates and Facebook pages to put the message out.

Vic’s Meats does that well with an informative website, recipes, cooking classes, Twitter account and an iPhone application. All of this builds the story that they are the experts and the people you should go to if you want the right cut of meat.

This is where Harvey Norman and Myers are failing. Many of us have stood for half an hour waiting in Myer store to get service from an overworked assistant or have been given poor advice by a badly trained, commission driven teenager in a Harvey Norman store.

Gerry Harvey and Bernie Brookes have blown the advantages that Harvey Norman and Myer had over the online players and instead cruised on their respective models of offering interest free purchase plans or perpetual discounting.

Those tactics gave them nearly 10 years breathing space while the online retail industry learned their lessons from the dotcom bust. That both businesses are now reduced to making empty threats in the hope of scaring the government into wasting millions on a pointless change to customs regulations is an instructive lesson in itself.

An irony in all of this is that major chains such as Harvey Norman and Myer were part of earlier waves of change which put established retailers out of business. We should give particular thought about those butchers who fell under the market might of Bernie Brookes’ old employer, Woolworths.

Those businesses died because they couldn’t see, or deal with, the rise of the big category killers like Harvey Norman, Officeworks and Bunnings or with the longer term trends like that of shoppers moving from high streets to suburban shopping malls.

The jury is out on how many local retailers ¬– both big and small– will go to the wall as online shopping gains acceptance, though it’s probably not a good idea to put a bet on those who sit on the sidelines and whinge that the “gummint orta do summint”.

Do you want to be one of the successes? If so, learn from Vic’s Meats and the other Best of Year award winners and sharpen up what you’re doing both online and in your store.

On a different note, there has been a development in the story of US based online entrepreneur Vitaly Borker (aka Tony Russo) who created a higher Google ranking and increased links to his site by encouraging bad online reviews, which I wrote about in last week’s blog, When all publicity isn’t good publicity. Borker has been charged with cyber-stalking, the making of interstate threats and both mail and wire fraud.You can read the full story here.

Paul will be discussing the future of Windows and the web on ABC Local Radio’s Nightlife program this Thursday night from 10pm Sydney and Melbourne time. More details are at Paul’s website.

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