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Taking Retail Back to Basics

Recently (September, 2022), my son and I were wandering about the souk of Tangiers. Periodically, we go on father-son trips. The context for this one was a failed car on a long distance rally across Andalusia and N.Africa which led us to undertake the same journey but by train, bus and boat. My son, James, is just starting out on his commercial career and is working for a world class, global fashion brand but buried deep in the organisation learning his craft in e-commerce. This provides many opportunities for fatherly lectures which I enjoy giving and, hopefully at least occasionally, James is OK to tolerate.

As we walked past the stalls and tiny shops of the souk it occurred to me that observing these for a while was a perfect way to explain Retail.

"What is that shopping selling?" I asked. "Well, it's obvious, spices, Dad".

Right, but how do we know this? The display at the front of the store is the answer. Great, big buckets of colourful spices & herbs all giving off their wonderful aromas make it totally clear what they are selling. Impactful, attractive, easy to understand. How often fo we lose sight of this in corporate retail? We can get lost in our own cleverness & lose sight of what the window is for: (1) to tell consumers who you are what you do and (2) entice them to buy right now.

As we watched one shopkeeper in a household goods store check his shelves armed with a clipboard we asked ourselves , "what is he actually doing". Again, obvious:

  • He's looking for what's been sold so he can buy more or restock from his back room

  • He's identifying slow-movers to perhaps take action: change the display, reduce the price, take a mental note that his customers don't like this product and so will order less in the future

  • Checking dates to ensure the stock is still current and, if not, he's probably looking to discount it out or return it

What do we call this? "Merchandise, Planning & Allocation" and we put a system behind it, slice and dice it into tiny portions of work and allocate it to a team or individual and create all sorts of clever-sounding jargon but, in essence, it's the same as this store keeper's activity with checking his shelves and making notes.

At yet another stall - this one was cheese, figs and all sorts of other ready-to-eat products - the stall owner chatted happily with an elderly lady and provided her with samples of his product. Some she bought, others she didn't. The dialogue was convivial, animated, started before we got there and carried on after we left. I think it's safe to assume they knew each other and the lady was a regular. What was this exchange in corporate retail-speak? CRM. The stall owner was providing a regular customer he knows well with product, based on that knowledge, he believed she may like and buy into. At the same time he was engaging her in a friendly conversation in order to get to know her even better, further his understanding of a "VIP" and deepen her connection to his "brand".

My point here is that we over complicate. Shopkeeping is shopkeeping. Unavoidably, as our businesses get larger and cross borders complexity will creep in. But we must not lose sight of what we are doing at the fundamental level. We must not allow jargon, systems, scale to obfuscate our tasks especially to the point where the folks, probably deep down in our organisations, lose sight of what they are doing, why they are doing it and where they fit in. If we do we run the risk of abstracting their tasks to such an extent the organisation starts to lose its coherence and focus. I have seen this many times and the cure is always this: go back to the basics & focus on the fundamentals.

If all else fails, take a trip to the souk in Tangiers.

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