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Reading Better, First Impressions, and Setting the Mood

One of the fun things about moving is finding your “memory boxes”. One of mine was falling apart so I had to dig through everything and transfer it all to a new box. Yeah, that took a lot longer than it should. (Remember, one of my Core Values is Nostalgia.) One item I found that brought back a flood of memories was a short story I wrote back in 1990 about a spring break trip to Colorado and Utah.

Back in 1990 my favorite author was Pat McManus, a humor writer who wrote columns for Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, and other magazines. Pat also wrote several side-splitting books about camping, hunting, fishing, and growing up in the 1930’s and 1940’s in the great outdoors. Rarely did I go camping without one of his books stashed in my backpack. It was a necessary weight.

Not surprisingly, my writing style for my short story back in 1990 was quite similar to Pat’s humor.

Back in 2005 Roy H. Williams told me that if I wanted to learn to write better, I needed to read better. In my notes from one of Roy’s workshops I had circled a book idea, Poem A Day edited by Retta Bowen, Nick Temple, Nicholas Albery, and Stephanie Wienrich.

Poetry is the language of emotions. Advertising works best when it reaches you on an emotional level. Poetry is looking at ordinary things from unique and surprising perspectives. Advertising is giving your potential customers a new way to look at your business. Poetry uses interesting word combinations to set the mood. Great advertising uses interesting word combinations to get your attention.

Back in 2010 I did a staff training using the opening lines from several great books such as …

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”  C.S. Lewis – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”  Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.”  A.A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh

In that same meeting I played the opening music from Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for Common Man, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and The Who’s Baba O’Reilly.

We talked about how the opening sets the mood for everything else. We talked about the importance of first impressions. We talked about rhythm and feelings. We also talked about all the “openings” a customer has at our store.

It isn’t just the greeting that sets the mood.

We identified the following “first impression” moments:

  • Phone
  • Parking Lot
  • Front Window
  • Front Door
  • Store Atmosphere
  • Appearance of Staff
  • Greeting

Notice how many “first impressions” happen before you even say, “Hello. Thank you for coming in,”? That’s a lot of mood setting and emotion-creating before you even open your mouth.

When you read better, you write better. When you visit better stores and truly look at the moods and emotions they are trying to evoke, you’ll have better ideas for your own store.

Take that list above and go visit your favorite stores. See if you can figure out who is making the best first impressions. Then go back to your store and see if you can figure out what first impression you are giving your customers.

The better your first impression, the easier it is for your staff to make connections and build relationships necessary to compete in today’s retail climate.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS When you visit other stores, take good notes. When you attend workshops and presentations, take good notes. Then revisit your notes often. I don’t just look at those notes for a walk down memory lane. I read my notes from old workshops because there are often more nuggets in there than I could ever possibly remember. Sometimes when you get home from a presentation it isn’t the right time for one of those nuggets. But when you revisit it later, the timing may be perfect.

PPS Yes, in some ways this is a meta-post. Notice how my blogs often start with a story? Stories are powerful tools in advertising because they get your attention, speak to the heart, and are more memorable. In other words, they set the mood and make a good first impression. If you set the wrong mood, you put up obstacles to sales. If you set the right mood, you grease the skids for sales. I was lucky in that Toy House was a downtown business, but with our own parking lot. But you should have seen how I fretted about the cleanliness of that parking lot—especially in the winter.

Be the First to Raise the Bar

It had to be my most favorite conversation with a customer ever. It was sometime in the fall of 1994, one year after Toys R Us had opened in our city.

“Phil, I have to tell you this. I went to Toys R Us last Christmas.”

Yeah, they were the new store in town. A lot of people went to check them out.

“But let me tell you what happened. I think you’ll get a kick out of this. I went in and looked around. They didn’t have quite as much stuff as you do. And I couldn’t find anyone to help me on the floor. So I took my cart up front and told the gal at the register I wanted to put it all on layaway. She said, ‘We don’t have layaway.’ So I said, that’s okay, I’ll just get it gift-wrapped. ‘We don’t do gift-wrapping.’ Well then what the hell am I in here for?

“If that’s your competition, you’re gonna be just fine.”

I was reminded of that story a few days ago. A new pizza place opened in town, a pizza and tap house. I only knew because I drove by it. I haven’t heard anything about it good or bad. No buzz. No excitement.

Image result for klavons pizza
The stuffed pizza at Klavon’s

Part of their problem is that another pizza joint opened up a full-service restaurant and bar serving pizza a few years ago. That restaurant is amazing, featuring indoor-but-can-become-outdoor-in-a-New-York-minute seating, classy stonework and decor, fireplaces, big screen TVs, and a killer menu (I had to go for lunch once just to order the cheeseburger that was getting all the raves because at dinner time I always get the pizza.)

This first restaurant raised the bar incredibly high. Anyone coming after them has to do something they didn’t do to get any buzz or excitement.

That’s the power of being first to raise the bar. If you raise it high enough, no one else is going to get any buzz just for copying you. Back in 1993 being “new” was enough. In 2018, being “new” only counts if you actually do something no one else is doing.

At the same time, here is your warning. If you haven’t raised the bar, you’ve left the door wide open for someone else to come in and clean your clock, eat your lunch, steal your chickens, or whatever metaphor you want to use for getting kicked to the curb.

Wanna play a fun game with your staff? Ask them this question …

If you were going to start a new store to compete with my current store, what would you do differently to have a competitive advantage?

Ask it of your staff. Ask it at the next networking event you attend. Ask it of your friends and family. Then listen to the answers. Any idea that isn’t simply cutting prices or offering more discounts and deals is a potential open door for a competitor to waltz right through.

Don’t wait for someone else to raise that bar. Be first. And raise it so damned high no one else would even think of trying to compete in your space.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS My second favorite conversation with a customer happened back in 1980. I was only 14 years old. I still get choked up thinking about it. I even turned it into a radio ad that propelled our 2005 Christmas season to record heights. I’ll tell you about it later if you’d like.

Cutting Expenses The Wrong Way

I was in Walmart yesterday. I had to pick up a few things. At the checkout, the cashier kept doubling bagging all of my items. I asked her why.

“These bags tear so easily that almost everyone has a ripped bag at the end. They used to be better but these new bags are too thin.”

Image result for walmart grocery bagsI hope for Walmart’s sake that the new bags are less than half the cost of the old bags. Otherwise their cost-cutting move is costing them more than it saves.

I get why they did it. I’ll bet their bags are a huge expense for them. I’ll bet someone pitched them the idea of a cheaper bag, or knowing Walmart, they probably went to their vendor and demanded a cheaper bag. The only way to make it cheaper was make it thinner. And now their employees are double bagging everything so that you can get your groceries home in one piece.

How’s that cheaper bag working out for you?

Bags, like so many other non-merchandise items, seem like a hassle expense. You know you need them but you hate paying for them. I know I did. But that didn’t stop me from buying better, thicker bags than I probably needed. Mostly because I also looked at bags as being a reflection of my brand. Cheap, flimsy bags send the signal that I care about my money more than I care about you. Sturdy, reusable handle bags say I care about you more than I care about money. (Remember that Values post I just wrote?)

The problem is that we too often look at our expenses as single, individual entities instead of how they fit into the whole. We make decisions on those expenses purely on a financial basis instead of thinking about how we want to present ourselves and how we want our customers to feel about us. You have to consider everything, otherwise your cuts may end up costing you more.

In the 68 years we ran Toy House, one of our most profitable years was 2009, smack dab in the middle of the great recession. I had to cut expenses that year to get that profit. Here is a post I wrote January 11, 2010 about how I cut those expenses … “Cutting Expenses the Smart Way”

Sometimes you need to cut expenses. How you cut them is often more important than how much you cut them.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS This trip down memory lane looking at old blogs has been fun for me. Maybe it will be fun for you. Here is a link to one page with all 897 blog posts to date.

“Everything Cheaper Somewhere Else”

I used to hate anonymous commenting on news articles and blog posts. It is so easy to hide behind a pseudonym and take unsubstantiated potshots at people and businesses, spread rumors, and even spread downright lies.

As a retailer, I took every negative comment and review of my business personally. Some of them hurt, especially when they weren’t true. The misunderstandings were one thing but the outright lies were the worst. They cut to the bone.

I remember one day in the infancy of online news when a fellow downtown business owner alerted me to comments posted on an online news story that attacked both my store and me personally. He warned me not to read them. I didn’t heed his warnings.

One person had taken it upon him or herself to just rip the business up one side and down the other, calling us, among other things, price-gougers who were just out to destroy the little people in town. This person claimed that he or she could find everything we sold in our store cheaper online.

I took offense to the first part. The person posting the comment had no idea what I paid myself or my staff or our profit margin or what we gave to charity or what causes we supported. I am a forgiving person, though. I will forgive them their ignorance.

The second part, however, was pretty much true. Not only could that person show you the items cheaper, I probably could, too. After all, I had Internet access. I could also show you sites and stores where just about everything we sold was more expensive than our prices. That exists, too.

In fact, if prices weren’t fluid across different channels, Retail would look a whole lot different and be a lot less fun. Everyone would pretty much do the same thing and charge the same for it. Yawn.

Image result for valueRetail is a game, and the game can be boiled down to this … Find the Value you can give the customer that will make it worthwhile for them to pay the price you wish to charge.

At the ballpark they charge you more for a single beer than you would pay for a twelve-pack at the store. You buy it because you want to drink a beer during the game. There is enough Value in enjoying that beer while watching the game that makes you pay the price. (Don’t want to pay their outrageous prices? You can eat before you go to the ballpark. Most people can handle 3-4 hours between eating. You can also drink water for free. They have to provide it to you.)

People call them price-gougers all the time. It doesn’t stop them from raising their prices and making money. They offer you the Value of being at the game and watching the action in person.

The real question you need to ask yourself as a retailer is … What Value are you adding to the equation and will that Value be enough to get people to pay your prices?

You can add Value in several ways. You can:

  • Offer services other stores don’t have (i.e. layaway, free gift-wrapping, assembly, delivery)
  • Curate the selection to help customers get only the best solutions
  • Align your business with a social cause
  • Offer follow-up services (such as the free 30-day riding tuneup that we used to offer with every bike we sold)
  • Build relationships to the point that the customer feels as much ownership in your store as you do.

Any one of those is a way to “play” the Retail Game. Play more than a few of them and you’ll never worry about how someone can find “everything cheaper somewhere else.”

Were we the lowest priced game in town? Nope. Never tried to win that race to the bottom. But in a 2007 survey of Jackson County residents about stores that sell toys in Jackson, we were rated as having the highest “Value” ahead of Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Kmart, and Meijer (all whom love to advertise their “lowest prices”.)

What Value are you adding to the equation?

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I have a good friend also named Phil who also ran a toy and baby store in the other Jackson (MS) who never liked MAP (Minimum Advertised Pricing) because it made everyone price their goods at the same price. He said true merchants have no problem with the undercutting of prices on the Internet because they know how to offer Value and make sales at higher margins. As much as you hate to admit it, he’s right. MAP only protects you at the margin the vendor thinks you should make, not the margin you deserve for all the value you offer.

PPS As for anonymous negative comments online, if they are an attack on your character or the character of your business, ignore them completely. Your actions speak louder than your words. Use your actions to prove that person wrong. If the comments are simply something misunderstood, you can respond for clarification, but only if you can substantiate your claims without putting down the person who made the comment. More often than not, however, it is best to ignore anonymous comments, period. I’ll talk about how to respond to Reviews in a future post.

PPPS A few of those ways to play involve the skills and training you give to your front line staff. As I pointed out before, that is probably the easiest way to add the kind of Value your competitors are not adding to their equations.

Here is What Winning Looks Like – Sweetlees Boutique

Sometimes it is easy to talk about the mistakes retailers make and simply caution you to not make those same mistakes. I’d like to share with you a story of an experience that went right. A long-time Toy House customer, my boys’ piano teacher, and dear friend Jen sent this to me. In her words …

“Well, the basic story was this…. you know where it’s going right?

Image result for sweetlees boutique mason miI went to a small locally owned (in Mason, MI) women’s boutique, Sweetlees Boutique. (Because I will tell everyone about how amazing it was, and where to find them—160 E. Ash St, Mason, MI 48854.) The workers were so attentive offering to find you sizing, suggesting things they thought would look good on your body. They were fitting both my mom and I who couldn’t be more different in that department, and they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try. Amazing experience. Both my mom and I purchased something. It was our first time there and we will definitely go back again.”

Let’s unpack that to see what they did so right.

“The workers were so attentive …”

How many times have you been in a retail establishment where you couldn’t even find an employee, let alone one who seemed remotely interested in helping you? The Wall Street Journal just wrote Monday about the dearth of employees in retail stores. Macy’s has cut 52,000 workers since 2008. Think about that number when you’re looking for someone the next time you visit a department store.

Think even harder about that number when you’re making out the next schedule for your store. Are you making a schedule to minimize payroll or maximize sales? If you think of your staff as your greatest expense, you’ll do the former. If you think of your staff as your greatest asset, you’ll do the latter.

“… suggesting things they thought would look good on your body.”

At one time this was the norm in a women’s clothing store. It was the expectation. Anything less and you would be writing a different review. Today it seems new and different and special.

That’s the one good thing you need to understand. The overall bar for customer service has been lowered so far that just doing the things you’re supposed to do will make you stand out in the crowd.

A properly trained and properly motivated staff can do wonders for the way your store is viewed compared to the competition. While everyone is all worried about high-tech this and omnichannel that, going old-school will win the day more often than not.

“… they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try.”

Once again, a properly trained staff makes a huge difference. This team knew that by asking questions they could get to know the customer better. Getting to know the customer better allowed them to pull better pieces that more closely matched the customers’ needs.

Every customer that walks through your door is there to solve a problem. The problem might be as simple as killing time. It might be as complex as buying the perfect series of gifts for the hardest person on your list. You don’t know the problem until you ask. (And you won’t get the answer you need if you haven’t first made a connection.) This doesn’t come naturally to everyone. You need to train your staff by showing them how, role-playing it, and practicing it. The stores that do that best are the stores that are winning.

“Both my mom and I purchased something.”

You have a lot of hurdles to overcome to get a sale from a first-time visitor. You have to make her feel comfortable. You have to figure out the problem she is solving. You have to present her with a valid solution. You have to overcome her hesitations and objections. You have to make her want the solution more than she wants her money. All of those are actual steps in a process. One misstep and it’s a no sale.

We call it browsing because many times customers want to go into a new store just to get a feel for the place. No pressure to buy, just a scouting trip to see if they like it. Sometimes you get lucky and they fall in love with a product by accident. That isn’t selling. That’s clerking. Anyone can do that.

If your sales team is waiting for the customer to come up to you, many of them won’t and you’ll have lost out. If your sales team hasn’t made a connection, unless she falls in love with a product by accident, she won’t be back, either. That’s on you.

“… we will definitely go back again.”

That, my friends, is what winning looks like. Bravo to Sweetlees Boutique. Bravo! Thank you, Jen, for sharing that story with us all.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS In the same message, Jen told me about another retail experience that didn’t end so well. I’d rather leave on a high note and save that tale for later. If you have story of someone doing it the right way, please share. Send me an email or find me on LinkedIn.

You’re Looking at Credit Cards Wrong

I was having a recent discussion with a friend about credit card usage. She uses her credit and debit cards almost exclusively. I still prefer cash. Many people think exclusive credit card usage is a young person, Millennial thing. My friend was born on the cusp between Baby Boomers and Gen X.

She isn’t the only person I know who prefers cards over cash. In fact, many smart shoppers prefer to use their cards. They have rewards cards that earn them miles or cash back. Some of my fellow business owners use their cards almost exclusively for their business and go on vacations virtually free.

Image result for credit cardsCredit card usage is the way of the world. It is the way most customers wish to pay you. And with the expansion of Apple Pay and other mobile wallets, that usage is going to continue to increase and become the preferred method of payment not just for Millennials but for all generations. (My son wants me to change banks just because my bank doesn’t yet support Apple Pay.)

Yet many small retailers (and some larger ones) are still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to accepting credit cards.

Yes, you need to accept chip cards. Yes, you need to accept mobile wallet payments. Those are necessary changes in today’s retail climate.

More importantly, you need to check your attitude about accepting credit cards.

I still see retailers who have “minimum charges” for credit cards. If you have that, you’re penny-wise and pound-foolish. You’re telling your customers those few extra cents on that transaction are more important to you than taking care of the customer and serving her the way she wants to be served. You’re telling the customer your needs are greater than hers.

When my friend sees those signs it pisses her off, makes her want to spend less, and makes her not want to come back. Would you rather she comes in once a week to spend $5 or spends zero money and tells people what a horrible store you are?

Heck, even if you allow credit cards for any amount yet you cringe when a customer pulls out her card for a $2 purchase, you need to check your attitude at the door. Swipe fees and percentages are part of the cost of doing business. Period. Unless the majority of your transactions are under $5, those fees are actually quite minimal in the grand scheme of your business. (And if your business does have a lot of $5 and under transactions, you should be making enough margin on your sales to cover those fees quite easily.)

If you want to cringe at a $2 credit card transaction, don’t cringe at the extra pennies you might pay to Visa. Cringe, instead, at the inability of your sales staff to make a larger sale. Cringe, instead, at your lack of connection with the customer that might compel them to buy more. Cringe, instead, at your failure to price things enough to cover your expenses.

Better yet, don’t cringe at all. Celebrate that customer and her purchase. Make her feel as special as the customer who spent $200. Be happy she came in. Be happier that she spent money. Be happiest that you have the chance to build a long-term relationship with her. That is the winning attitude.

You are going to have credit card fees. That is an expected expense in today’s business climate. Your job as a merchant is to make enough money to cover your expenses. Whether you do it through better profit margins or cutting other expenses, your attitude towards those expenses shapes the attitude you have toward your customers.

When you limit how your customers can pay you or simply take an attitude when they pay you in a way that is least convenient for you, you’re taking a business-centric approach. When you have no limits and no worries, you’re taking a customer-centric approach. One leads to smaller average transactions and fewer transactions. One doesn’t. You know the difference.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The same can be said about whether or not to accept American Express. Yes, you need to accept it … with a smile on your face. You need to be happy when a customer pulls out her Amex instead of her debit card. You need to celebrate the customer, not worry about the fees. You do that by adjusting your margins and expenses to cover it. (As for Bitcoin and other cybercurrencies, because of their volatile nature, you can draw the line there without angering customers. Those of you who do accept cybercurrencies, however, are going to find that you attract a whole new level of clientele that could possibly be quite good for your business.)

PPS Here is the best thing you will read about how to increase your margins enough to cover those credit card expenses.

I Didn’t Steal a Bunch of Candy

I didn’t steal a bunch of candy. Oh, I could have. I bought some over-priced M&Ms at a candy shop on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. The checkout was at the back of the store in the most awkward place. I had to walk up a ramp, stand in a line, then stand in the entry way to the nostalgic candy area near the back of the store to pay for my purchases.

I watched customer after customer walk away from the checkout with a decorative paper bag into which they could have tossed tens or even hundreds of dollars worth of loose candy from multiple displays on their way to the front of the store. I don’t think they did. I didn’t. But I could have.

Sure, the store had cameras near the front door. But with the crowd that was in that store on a Saturday afternoon, beating those cameras would have been a breeze worthy of the Windy City.

It wasn’t just the shoplifting aspect that bothered me with the layout of this particular store.

The registers were side by side, but the line to get to them was beside them, not in front of them. If someone was at the first register, by the time it was your turn, you had to scootch around them to get to the second register. If someone big, or a party of two or more was at the first register, you couldn’t even see the tiny little cashier at the open register.

The registers were also poorly placed in the doorway to a special section of nostalgic candy. You know Nostalgia is one of my Core Values. I was excited to enter that section. I was a lot less excited waiting for the gal at checkout with her stroller that was blocking my entry to the area.

I suppose if you’re in a large city like Chicago, catering to the tourist crowd, you can overcharge for your goods to offset your shrinkage and create a layout that frustrates the heck out of customers knowing that they likely won’t be back anyway.

If you’re not in this situation, you might want to plan your layout more carefully.

Put the cash-wrap where you can see everything and everyone in the store, but also close enough so that once people check out, they can easily leave. More importantly, plan the line of customers for checkout so that they don’t block other customers trying to shop. Best of all, make it easy and intuitive for customers to know where to go and what to do when they are ready to check out.

I know there is a train of thought that says you want a layout that gets people to the back of the store. Using your checkout as the lure, though, is not the best way to accomplish this, especially in a store that has a ton of traffic and sells easily-pocketed items.

This kid definitely wasn’t as enthralled with this candy shop.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I will give them props on the centerpiece display. The giant lollipop tree pictured here was worthy of the stop and a good example of Over-the-Top-Design. They also had several choose-your-own-flavor stands for things like Jelly Bellies, M&Ms, and other candies. But then again, the last feeling of the experience is the lasting feeling of the experience. Don’t let your customers walk out unhappy, confused, frustrated, or befuddled.

Things You Should Know Better

I just got back from Chicago. Fabulous trip! I was hired to do a couple presentations for the Diamond Retailer Summit hosted by Diamond Comics Distributors. I did two talks—Selling in a Showrooming World and Main Street Marketing on a Shoestring Budget. I also got to do something new for me. I had a booth during their afternoon showcase. I have visited several booths over the years, but this was the first time I got to have a booth under the banner of Phil’s Forum.

My booth at the Diamond Retailer Summit, April 2018

I knew a little about having booths in big convention halls from my friends who own toy and baby product companies. I knew I wanted to have a booth I could carry in by myself, that wouldn’t take any special tools to build, and wouldn’t require electricity. We were in McCormick Place in Chicago and it wasn’t in my budget to pay for any “help.”

The McCormick Place website was helpful in giving me some basic information. I got my parking pass in advance so that I would have a guaranteed space in Lot A. I knew I was in the South Building, fourth floor, so I would have to take the sky bridge from parking to my building. All was good.

Until I got off the highway.

The signs leading to Lot A were all but nonexistent. I only saw one, vaguely over an area of road where several roads converged. I never knew if I was in the proper lane. I was about to turn around, thinking I had gone too far when the turn I made actually led me directly into the parking lot, surprise, surprise. One frustration down.

My signs for my booth weren’t heavy. A little awkward, but those fancier, lightweight, compact signs just weren’t in the budget. I made my way from the garage across the sky bridge into the South Building. It was dark. I was in the lobby of the building in front of the grand ballroom and rooms S101-S104. There were two big escalators, neither working. There were elevators at both ends of the lobby, neither working. There was a sign with a map of the different levels telling me I was in the South Building on Level 1, and showing that my room—S401—was also in the South Building on Level 4.

Nowhere on that sign did it give me any indication I needed to leave the South Building and go to the main entrance between the North & South Buildings to find a working elevator to get me to the 4th floor. Nowhere was there a sign to let me know that the 4th floor rooms were all the way in the back of the building, another quarter mile from where I was standing, lost, looking at their signs, or that I would have to either maneuver my signs up escalators or traverse a snaking path between the two buildings to get there. Nowhere was there any person at the bottom of the escalator from the sky bridge to direct traffic for people coming in from Lot A.

After finding a working elevator to get me to the fourth floor, I then hiked the snaking pathway between the North and South buildings until finally finding my way to room S401. (Did I mention my signs were not heavy, but awkward? By now they were feeling much heavier than when I started.)

Once I got to my room and stopped sweating, my day went infinitely better. The talks were home runs (at least that’s the immediate feedback I got.) The booth time was excellent. I met some fascinating people and may have some incredible new opportunities. The food was pretty yummy, too. All in all it was an awesome day!

Then I had to head back.

Not wanting to do the snaking pathway back along the fourth floor, I took the elevator at the back of the building down to the first floor. Rookie mistake. There are no signs anywhere that tell you the “first floor” at the back elevator is not the same “first floor” as the front elevator. Now I was lost deep in the bowels of the convention center. Fortunately, a friendly security guard directed me up a couple escalators that got me back to an area I recognized.

He admitted the signage was lacking greatly and what signage they did have was confusing. He assured me I wasn’t the first person who had made this mistake.

Let’s stop right there. “He assured me I wasn’t the first person who had made this mistake.”

If there is a “mistake” a customer has made interacting with your business, that’s a potential red flag for you. If it happens once, then it might be the customer’s fault. If it happens more than once, you have a problem you need to fix.

If multiple customers don’t know what to do or where to go, that’s on you, not them. Somewhere along the way, you haven’t made it clear what they need to do next.

This could be a problem on your website where the call-to-action isn’t clear on each page. This could be a problem with your checkout if people don’t know where to line up or put their merchandise. This could be a problem with your services if people don’t know how they work or what they have to do or where they have to go.

If you have this problem, might I suggest a sign or two? There should have been a clear sign at the bottom of the escalator from the sky bridge when I entered the South Building telling me where to go. If not that, there should have been a person stationed there to direct traffic. There should have been clear signage at the back elevator explaining that it did not lead to the same “first floor”. 

McCormick Place opened in 1960, expanded several times, and is the largest convention center in North America. This isn’t their first rodeo. They should know better by now. The security guard knew it. He shouldn’t be apologizing for mistakes made by someone else. Maybe he has complained before, but no one listened. Maybe he never bothered to complain because he figured no one would listen.

There are things you should know better, too. Make sure you are listening and actively looking for those “mistakes” that can be easily corrected.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Yes, I probably missed something along the way. I’m not perfect. But I do like to think of myself as somewhat observant. If I missed it (and I was looking for it), I’m sure others did, too. Here is the thing, though. If your customers are made to feel stupid—even if it is their own mistake—they won’t come back. If your customers are made to feel comfortable, they will come back. If your customers are made to feel wonderful, they’ll bring their friends back with them.

PPS I am ready for my next visit to McCormick Place. If you’re looking for a dynamic speaker who isn’t afraid to admit he got lost in a convention center, who likes to learn from his mistakes, and is willing to use what he has learned from all his mistakes over the years to help you succeed, give me a holler.

Three Examples of Doing a Little More

I was in Houston a few weeks ago doing a staff training for a fellow toy store owner’s team. After the training three of us (two former toy store owners and one current toy store owner) took a nice long walk. I got to see some of the places where the floods from last summer’s hurricane had left their mark. It was mind-blowing trying to imagine just how high the water got compared to its level that day.

We also walked through a little neighborhood shopping area. I was immediately drawn to the sign that said “Free Beer”. Yeah, we went inside.

The store sold beachwear and was in between last year’s fashions that were severely depleted and this year’s fashions that had yet to come in. If their regular stock levels were the highest point of the flood, their current stock levels were below the lowest point in the water table. They barely had anything to make you think they were in business.

That’s me on the left with my, um, hat?

They did, however, have a cooler full of beer and a Tiki Toss game on the wall (you know the game—the ring on a string that you swing to try to land it on the hook on the wall). They were throwing a party inside the store to celebrate. They weren’t celebrating the clearance of the old lineup. They weren’t celebrating the arrival of the new lineup (it hadn’t yet arrived). They were simply celebrating the customers.

I walked in and got a free beer. I also got a coozie sleeve for that beer. I also played Tiki Toss, and when I got a ringer they gave me a free foam, um, hat? I don’t know what it was for sure, or what it was for, but I packed it in my luggage and brought it home.

Even with nothing to sell, that store was doing what all great retailers do—building the relationship with the customer. That was their way to beat the first quarter blues—have a party!

They definitely exceeded my expectations.

Here are three more examples of how to give your customer more than he or she desires, needs, or expects.

DADDY/CHILD PLAY DATE

On a typical Saturday morning we will see a parent in our store with a child. They aren’t there to shop. They are just there to browse and play. Sometimes it is Saturday afternoon and they have a couple hours to kill between the wedding and the reception. Sometimes it is a dad who is looking for an inexpensive way to have some fun with his child.

Whatever it is, the expectation is that the parent is hoping to kill some time, let the child have some fun looking at all the cool toys, and maybe play with a sample toy or two.

In one instance a dad brought his daughter in to play. We had just received some new magnetic blocks. I made it a big deal to pull out the blocks and allow her to be the first kid in Jackson to play with this new toy. She squealed with excitement. No, he didn’t buy those blocks … that day. He bought them on Monday. That little girl is in college now and we got to watch her grow up.

LATE FOR BIRTHDAY PARTY

Another common Saturday visitor is on her way to a birthday party, often running late. One of my staff related this Smile Story at a staff meeting …

“She called the store, said she was on her way to a birthday party for a six-year old boy. Could we pick a LEGO set out for around $25 and have it wrapped so that she could run in and get it quickly? So I got her item, wrapped it, and then attached a blue helium balloon to it. She was so thrilled! She was the gal who came in last week with a tray of cookies. She said, ‘Not only do the kids always go for the packages wrapped in Toy House paper first, when you have a helium balloon attached, you’re the first of the first!'”

Think about that one for a moment. This customer already had a pretty high bar of expectation if she felt she could call ahead and have us pick the right gift and have it wrapped. Yet my staff still found a way to exceed that.

THREE GRANDKIDS FOR FIVE DAYS

This is one of my favorite stories. I even wrote a radio ad about it. One of our regular customers came in asking for help. She had three grandkids visiting for five days and wanted a new toy for each day of their visit. Not only did my staff pick out fifteen great toys, they wrapped each one, labeled them with the child’s name and the date to open. When she came back into the store, she said, “Phil, your staff is the best! My grandson thinks I am the best toy picker ever. He said, ‘These toys are better than if I picked them out myself!’ Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I use these stories to illustrate that you don’t need to do a whole lot to exceed your customer’s expectations. You just have to first know what those expectations are. In all three instances we didn’t give away the farm. In fact, we didn’t use discounts or deals to win the hearts of these customers. We just found out what they wanted, and gave them a little more.

You can do that, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The first step in giving your customer more than she desires, needs, or expects is to eliminate the phrase, “No, we don’t do that,” from your vocabulary. If your customer is asking if you do something, then she expects it is something you would do. If it isn’t too crazy, do it. What have you got to lose (except another customer)?

Indie Retailers Best Poised for New Retail Model

A few years ago I went to lunch with a fellow toy store owner. I had wanted to see his store, so we made plans for me to visit and then go get lunch. Since we were in his town, I left it up to him to pick a place for lunch. What he said next I still cannot believe.

“Well, my favorite lunch place is out because I went there yesterday. A couple of our city council members stopped by and took me to lunch to ask me if there was more they could be doing for my business.”

Jaw meet floor.

That kind of respect for a local independent business is a rare bird in the world of government. Instead we see communities falling all over themselves to throw money at Amazon, not realizing that even if they don’t get an Amazon HQ or DC, they are still “giving money” to Amazon as local tax revenues are lost while local independent businesses struggle to survive.

For most indie retailers, even the government is slanted against us. You pretty much have to be a chain store or opening a mega-store for government to throw you any kind of bone.

In spite of all that, local independent retailers are starting to see a surge.

In a recent article discussing the problems plaguing Walmart, the author said, “Selling products to strangers doesn’t cut it anymore. To succeed in retail today you need to start with the customer, not the product.”

The article went on to talk about how several eCommerce sites are expanding into brick & mortar to better serve the customers.

Do you know who is best-suited to take advantage of this it’s-about-the-customers-more-than-the-products era of retail? You guessed it! Local independent retailers.

Believe it or not, it hasn’t been about the products for indie retailers for over a decade. It used to be that if you invented a new product you had to pitch that product to existing vendors or go into manufacturing yourself and pitch it to a handful of indie retailers to get started. Then, after the product gained traction and had sales history, bigger vendors might take interest. Once the bigger vendors got their hands on it, the product could make its way to the masses.

That model is gone. Now if you have an idea, you crowdfund it and launch it online until the big guys swoop in and buy you out.

Local indie retailers have had to build relationships with customers and offer them curated selections of great items they’ve likely never seen before to succeed. Fortunately, that model works. According to the article, that’s the new model of retail. According to me, that’s also the old model of retail.

Fostering relationships with your customers and building loyalty through something other than a frequent purchase discount never goes out of style. 

The simplest way to do that is:

  1. Figure out what she desires, needs, and expects.
  2. Give her more than she desires, needs, and expects.

I call that the Simplest Business Success Formula Ever. This is what the companies in that article are doing.

This is how you compete in today’s retail environment. You can’t control what product fads will be hot. You can’t control what vendors will stab you in the back (pro tip: every year at least one vendor goes back on his word about a product or product line he promised to keep exclusive to the indie channel.) You can’t control what products you will actually get shipped. On top of that, you can’t control what happens to the local, state or national economy. Nor can you control Mother Nature.

But you can control the experience someone has in your store. You can control the type of people you hire and the training they receive to be able to figure out those expectations and exceed them regularly. Do that and you’ll control your destiny as well.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Your local government would do well to understand the formula, too. If they would create an environment where the needs and expectations of indie retailers were met (and exceeded), they would see tax revenues begin to rise. Indie retailers typically have more staff and a higher payroll per sale than the chains. Indie retailers typically use less land and less local services (police/fire etc.) than the big chains. They also create character, draw outside traffic, and give local communities their charm. Yet, in the last twenty-five years, that opening story is the only time I have heard firsthand about a government trying to exceed the expectations of their most profitable “customers”.