Why retail sucks and how to fix it?

Why retail sucks and how to fix it?

I woke up this morning not feeling too well, and had to spend an extra hour in bed. What got me out of it instantly was a call from a ‘new’ customer. She had seen an advertisement of my business in one of the local magazines, and had done some research online via Google to check on my credentials.

Her exact words to me were, “ I’m choosing your business above all others mainly cause you’re a local business. I’d prefer spending on you and support you than on large corporations who give nothing back”. 

I was so happy to hear that, and thanked her immensely. Yes, there’s a customer who is willing to support local businesses. Yes, there’s a person who wants to build small businesses. Yes, there’s an individual who knows what’s it like to run a small business with integrity and passion and wants to reward you for it by spending with you.

A look back…simpler times ! 

In the many years before e-commerce took shape, and before mega malls existed; there used to exist a very real thing called “customer service”. It wasn’t taught on manuals but through years of hard work behind the counter, or on the shop floor, by well-mannered, honest and trusting people.

These ‘mom and dad’ stores invested their savings into quality products that would do as they said, and be back by their personal guarantees, namely, “if it ain’t right, just come and talk to me and we’ll fix it”. 

These stores would not turn over millions, but do enough to run their life and employ possibly 2 or 3 people who would provide genuine care for their customers, and invest in their people and their craft. They had the best intentions of the customers at heart, and in return, these customers had relationships with these stores, and would choose to shop with them, even if it meant travelling a bit further, or paying a little more, or waiting an extra week for their prized item to arrive.

This wasn’t 20 or 30 years ago, this was possibly 12 to 15 years ago. Before e-commerce / online shopping; before the GFC (great financial crisis); before shopper apps and any of this technology- obsessed buying.

What happened that changed this?  Did it happen suddenly, or were we unaware of the changing landscape.

Big retailers entered the market. 

The very worst thing that could happen to retail was the entering of mega retailers, or the stock-market backed giants. They promised better prices, higher quality of service, and wider choices.  They turned employment into slavery where staff were not  adequately trained, but simply taught policies which end with “Sell Sell Sell”. 

The human factor was eroded through advanced technology adoption which meant the customer came and did most of the work, and paid and walked out without even seeing a customer service assistant for more than a minute.

Profits over people. 

Customers were now being valued by the size of their spend, not by the relationship with the business. Stockholders demanded continuous growth which could only come by squeezing suppliers (give me cheaper product, don’t mind the quality) and by squeezing customers (why pay more when you can buy this for less).

Investing in cheap means even the staff employed today consists of underpaid and overworked students who would rather leave the store when the clock ticks 5 than spend a minute helping you choose better.

When I was involved in retail business, we never invested in cheap and paid 20% more than that market. The result was we always had the most professional experienced staff who demanded their pay, and deserved it too.

Cheap cheap cheap. 

The expression that comes to mind is that of comparing apples with oranges. Retailers today have learnt this art to perfection where they will push an inferior product / service on you, supplied through illegal or forced labour, at exorbitant margins.

These products don’t last. These services aren’t simple to use. And most of the work is done by the customer. But you know what, as you’re trying to save every cent on the dollar, you overlook one detail and overlook another and then overlook yet another, before we fall in a habit of accepting substandard products and services. But guess what? You spend more overall as you’re hoarding junk and not really get any ROI on anything you purchase.

Internet re-invented shopping. 

E-Commerce or online-shopping brought globalisation to the front in the form of choice. Now everyone was their own stylist, and their own expert. Why go to a store for advice when I can buy it cheaper in Venezuela, or through some fancy website which offers amazing deals.

Yes, e-commerce solved a lot of problems that customers faced, more so, from the lack of attention from retailers in using the channel well; and from ignoring or as I say it, taking customers for granted.

But the impact of this was that smaller stores and businesses suffered. Their sales dropped. Their revenue declined. And they couldn’t keep up with re-investing all of their profits just to be in business. All of  a sudden there was a lot of choice, which created confusion, and shifted mindset.

Looking back, I believe I spent more then than now. Why? Too much choice and not enough quality. Everything looks good, but that’s it. Is it really that good? Most probably not.

Mass consumption 

The biggest impact has been the rise of mass consumption. Everyone wants everything for the price of next to nothing. With stores like H&M, Zara, TopShop and so on opening in Australia, many quality garment manufacturers will close shop.

Majority of consumers are more interested in the price they pay for the garment, without really looking at everything. The thing to ask yourself before you buy anything is this, “How many times am I going to wear this? Where am I going to wear this? How will this make me look, not just in terms of fit, but in terms of perception of quality?” 

Is this healthy? Is this helping our economy? Are we becoming connoisseurs or hoarders? Where is the expert advice when you need it, from someone who’s spent years learning his craft?

How do we fix this?

Support Small Businesses. Demand Service. 

When you buy from a local store, try to ascertain if they’re interested in giving you the service you desire. Test them by asking them questions, and trust their advice using common sense. If they’re genuine, and you feel that they’re going out of their way to get your business, then support them.

You have every right as a customer to demand quality and service, as long as you’re not pulling them down on the price every time you buy from them. You’ll help push the local economy up.

I speak from personal experience as I purchase my fruits and veges from a local grocer, who makes it his mission to let me know when the in-season fruits have arrived and I trust him for his advice. It means I pay a bit more than Coles or Woollies but I know the personalised service and quality of goods is second to none.

Choose ethically produced or manufactured products 

Whilst its very hard to find out who’s ethical and who’s not; one gets a very good idea based on the personality of the business and its staff. As a business owner, I give 10% of my overall turnover to charities every month. It’s my way of saying thanks to the community I live in, and feel good when I can see it makes a small difference.

Most corporations have a social responsibility towards the countries they operate in, but there are many global operators who have different rules based on the country they operate in. If they’re using sub-standard forced labour, then avoid buying their product. Hit them where it hits them the most, in their pockets by not opening your wallet doing business with them.

My business offers employment to a small team of tailors out of my tailoring factory in Thailand. All of them get 20% above market rate, plus a month wages in bonus during their annual holiday. Plus, they are paid a bonus on the garment they produce based on the quality, not quantity. These policies have helped my business uplift our quality to 98 % accuracy (meaning only 2 garments out of 100 have to be remade) against an industry norm of 60 %. This has saved me thousands of dollars in the long term, and helped my staff feel a common sense of purpose and achievement.

I’m not putting this here to say, Wow Farrukh, you’re the best! I’m putting this here as I want to shout out about what I believe in, and if only all clothiers did it. Then we wouldn’t have a lot of issues like we hear of, in countries like China, India, Bangladesh and so on.

Invest in one expert for every different service. 

Find the expert for a service you need, and stick with them. Don’t go shopping every time you find a cheaper option, as long as they’re not ripping you off, or taking you for granted.

Use your Google or Bing or True Local app, and get searching. Read your local suburban paper and talk to the businesses you see supporting your local kids soccer team, or RSL or something like that. These business owners mean the best in their heart, and give them your time and trust their expertise.

Avoid fly-by operators…even better, report them ! 

There are a lot of fly-by operators visiting Australia and New Zealand. They claim to offer expertise at rock-level prices and many people are being sucked in by them. They don’t have an ABN or ACN, nor do they employ anyone here, nor are they liable under any consumer protection laws. In fact, if you report them, they will run away, and more likely to do cash price with a wink than provide genuine invoices.

When you do business with them, you’re supporting an anti-Australian or anti-New Zealand or anti-your country. These people don’t pay taxes, they don’t invest in your local economy, and they certainly are not liable legally to provide you what you’re promised. They’re in the business of burn-n-churn. Every trip there’s another 200 people to meet, and even if 20 or 30 complain, it’s not going to harm their reputation.

I have heard this for years from my customers, who have been burned on a cheap suit from a cheapo from HK or BKK offering world’s leading fabrics at street value. No, it can’t be right. And it’s certainly not true. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In conclusion, having worked in retail over many years, I have a lot of respect for a lot of people who helped me be who I am. Their expertise and generosity has enabled me to upgrade my skills and offer my services. And I would love to be seen in the same way by some young kid down the years, with respect and with appreciation.

So yeah, buy local, support small and see your community get strong. And thanks everyone for your support of my custom-tailoring business #Azrim:Az Designer Az You

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