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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Quality retail stores should not fear online competition

Online shopping may be convenient and cost-effective, but the expertise and advice you get when a retail assistant is on top of their game can be priceless.

On a detour into a makeup store to buy something hideously girly as I walked home from the city. It takes a fair bit of guts to go into a store like that, but I'd searched for what I wanted online and I hadn't found it.
The gleaming store was intimidating, but weirdly, as I slunk inside I instantly felt welcome.

It's been a while since I've felt like that walking into a store. In fact, it's been ages since I've really gone 'shopping' to boot.

I, like many 30-something women, prefer the convenience of shopping online - you know the brand, you know the fit, and you aren't made to feel uncomfortable or even worse, ignored, when you walk into a shop.
As one sales assistant approached me to ask me what I was looking for, I flinched briefly and almost backed out the door. I was sweaty and, well, didn't really belong in a place like this.

But she was warm, friendly, and she knew a hell of a lot about make up. In all of 10 minutes, she whisked me through a myriad of colors, brands, prices and ingredients. I was caught up in her enthusiasm. She up-sold me three times: I knew what she was doing and I realized I didn't care.

As I asked for the price of each item, I thought how much cheaper I could get it on the online makeup sales. But instead of going home that night to jump online, I thought bugger it - she sold it to me, convinced me it was what suited, and damned if I didn't feel a bit altruistic thinking it's justified to pay a bit more to someone who's bloody good at their job.

As governments discuss changes to the GST applied to imports purchased online, you'd be forgiven for thinking our days visiting real stores are numbered.

Overseas retailers are routinely blamed for playing havoc with the market because they, by default not design, can have cheaper goods when the purchases are less than $1,000. You can't blame the state premiers for wanting to get their hands on more GST revenue. Just how much it will cost to collect or what it will end up costing consumers is debatable.

Choice has released some pretty damning modelling about what the end cost will be by the time you factor in handling. It irritates me to think consumers will be slapped with more costs to prop up governments, but the magnitude of it all is debatable.

National Australia Bank's analyst Gerard Burg earlier this year, the numbers he'd crunched showed that three quarters of all online retail sales went to domestic businesses anyway. So is putting a GST on those sales really all that significant in levelling the playing field? Will it really make much of a difference?

Everyone wants to save more money, and a lot of us are worried about job security. Many are worried about the cost of living or mortgage payments. So to convince consumers to part with their money, as a retailer, you need to make a compelling case.

There are different ways to make that case. You can offer the cheapest price, or you can offer the better service to achieve your sale.

In all facets of life, we pay people for their skills. We pay lawyers, real estate agents, builders and doctors for their expertise. They do things we can't.

So when I walk into a make up store and a knowledgeable sales assistant can help me find what's right, then I am happy to pay her for her skills, too. Somehow, the quality of staff and what they can offer you seems to have been lost in the howls of an ordinary year for retail.

I can't tell you how many bad shopping moments I've had in the past few years - so much so that I now go online to buy almost everything.

There was the department store sales woman who visibly slunk away as I chased her down to see if she had shoes in my size.

There have been plenty of people who haven't even raised their eyes to meet my gaze as I've walked into their store. The jewellery store owner who was serving other customers and instead of saying he'll be with me in a minute, embarrassingly ignored me until I walked out without even being acknowledged in his store.
Other staff are noticeably unfriendly.

But there are people who have pride in what they do, can make recommendations, offer you more information about what you are looking for, or track down something you need in another store.

To me, it's simple. To justify their existence, the so-called 'bricks and mortar' stores are going to need to offer consumers something they can't get online.

Myer is right on it. The department story chain has launched an innovative in-store app that takes your picture with a computer-generated Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer if you stand at certain points in store.
It's a bit weird but some people, perhaps those with kids, will dig it.

With retail giants Zara and H&M breathing down the necks of domestic retailers, the time is now to make sure staff are trained, passionate, knowledgeable, and can offer something customers need - advice on what might suit you purpose, what might look good, what fabric is the best for summer and what doesn't need ironing.

Companies are now using technology to help with that. But you can't beat hiring the right staff, training them effectively and making sure they enjoy what they do. It will rub off on the customers.
It strikes me that everything that is wrong with retail was laid in front of me during my trip to the makeup store.

The fact that I even write about a pleasant experience being unusual is pretty sad. But as the sales woman showed me, the key is nothing new - it's about working smarter, and by that I mean being smarter than your customer.