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Thriving in Uncertainty and the Alleged Death of Retail

An Eight Point Doomsday Prepper's Guide

Retail is dying! Or so they say. Others say: Don't believe the hype! Now with the advent of Coronavirus COVID-19 the nail is in the coffin for the retail industry.

The truth is that the retail market has undergone an evolution from the dawn of suburban shopping malls, through the rise of the big box stores, to today's current doomsday predictions. That entire progression has heralded similar rally cries prognosticating the inevitable death of Retail.

In a recent speech I did at The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce installation banquet in January, I said something that resonated with many business owners. I said, "To run a successful business, you have to have relentless persistence, embrace change, be willing to take risks, and have a bias towards execution." 

Let's focus on one aspect of that statement: Embracing Change. I believe embracing changes is something that you can use in your business to help you be prepared and thrive in a world of uncertainty. Indeed, Coronavirus has mandated a difference in the way companies operate. However, change and uncertainty bring potential opportunities. With COVID-19, the death of retail is receiving more than its share of the press. Still, the principles I talk about are part of the new "experience" economy and should be applicable not just for retail businesses but for most companies today.  

There is a saying in business: If you are not growing, you are dying. As the owner of a technology company, I know this adage is true. Everybody understands that technology changes. However, there is an additional maxim: If your business is not embracing change and evolving, you are dying. Change is a fact of life. In technology, it is a way of life.

But along with the accelerated pace business, change is occurring exponentially. I live on the Gulf Coast of Northwest Florida in the Destin, Fort Walton Beach area. Like many communities, we do not think we are a microcosm of the US Economy. For some reason, people think we are immune to many changes in business and our economy. We feel it is business as usual, as it has always been. 

Our economy is primarily focused on military defense and tourism. We cling to what we were in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, thinking we are still a sleepy little fishing and vacation community, but this is wrong. You cannot escape the wants, desires, and needs of customers. Whether we like it or not, the consumer has changed.

Across the United States, chambers of commerce and communities have created, misguided, and well-meaning programs like "buy local." These programs sought to stem the tide of the demise of the retail. These "buy local" programs have failed to stem the inevitable wave of change. Those businesses that have embraced change and evolved into new business models have survived, those that did not, are no longer with us. In today's market, big box stores like Toy's R Us are collapsing, and local businesses struggle to compete. Online shopping has garnered favor with consumers, as the retail market undergoes yet another evolution.

Herein lies the real driver of this evolution: The consumer. Business owners need to realize that it is not about them; it's about the customer. Take care of the customer or someone else will. Provide the customer with the product or services that they are willing to pay for. It is just that simple. Retail store owners need to realize they can no longer control the customer or the buying process.

We are in an information age with instant access to data & information. Customers are now informed, buy online, and want immediate gratification. Businesses are fighting to earn space in the consumer's brain. You cannot do it with savvy slogans and slick marketing. Splatter marketing is an old way of thinking. Today, we must earn the consumers' attention on their schedule. If you are a local business, this is even more critical, especially in a community that relies on tourism and a transient military population. You cannot rely on drive-by traffic or a storefront to gain attention. People do not have time. They are going to use their smartphones and the internet to maximize their time and minimize their effort.

There is hope! You can thrive in this new economy. To survive the retail apocalypse, retail business owners should follow my "Doomsday Prepper's Guide to the Retail Apocalypse." If you are addicted to the "old way" of retail and are having trouble changing, then you can consider this my eight-step program for recovering retailers.

1. Accept that Retail has Changed Forever, will Continue to Change, and Continuously Evolve your Business 

"change ahead" roadsignDoomsday preppers believe wholeheartedly that the end is near. Their beliefs and their need to survive drives them to prepare for the inevitable end of civilization. Likewise, any recovering addict has to admit they have a problem and accept it. That is the cornerstone of any twelve-step program.  

Littering the business graveyard are companies small and large that failed to recognize changing consumer wants and desires. Blockbuster, Kodak, Hostess, Borders, Blackberry, Polaroid, Pan-Am, and Circuit City all no longer exist. Sears, Toys R Us, US Postal System, and JC Penney are in the death knell of bankruptcy.  

Sixty-eight companies remain today from the original 1955 Fortune 500 list. If that statistic does not have your attention, review the top 30 stocks on the Dow Jones Industrial in 2000 versus those in 2020. Most of the companies from 2000 no longer exist or are no longer in the top 30. 

Ignoring change and sticking your head in the sand is unlikely to yield positive results. My Advice is to Embrace change and look for Opportunities!

2. Be Remarkable 

happy surprised customerDoomsday Preppers hideout and are secretive with their preparations. With business in today's market, you are battling for the customers' mindshare. Today, everyone is bombarded continuously with marketing messages, products, and services. Therefore, your customers and potential customers tune out. To keep them from tuning out, You MUST stand out. Not only must you stand out, but you must also be REMARKABLE.

You want people to see you as different. You want to earn their trust, so they are willing to be your herald and tell everyone they meet about your business. You want them to talk about you on Social Media, to their friends, and the whole world.

If you act like a commodity, you will be a commodity. Be different, stand out from the crowd, and stand out as a leader and innovator with your product or service. When everything is the same, there is no differentiation.
You are not going to make everyone happy. You have heard the adage, "All publicity is good publicity." Don't be afraid to break a few eggs and stand out as different.

If you are doing the same old things, you are probably just white noise. Excellent product or services is a given. Excellent customer service is a given. Creative themes, unexpected services, integrated technology, and experiences stand out in the minds of consumers. Engage all the consumers' senses: sight, touch smell, sound, and taste. You must dazzle and delight people earning a place in their minds.

3. Provide an Experience 

customer giving a five star ratingWe live in an experience economy. Customers want experiences, especially when it comes to retail purchases. No offense to lovers of Starbucks. Why would anyone pay five dollars for a cup of coffee, that is nothing more than hot water and few pennies worth of burnt Arabica coffee beans? It's because of the coffee experience that drives customers to Starbucks. Starbucks customers are part of an exclusive club. That club has its own Starbuckian language with terms like Venti and Grande that only the cool kids speak. Starbucks stores have a unique smell, music, furniture, coupled with unique layouts.

The in-store experience is critical. You should engage all a person's senses and provide a sense of joy and positive emotions. Music, smells, tactile experience, and even tastes all can elicit positive emotions. Make things convenient. When people travel, they see products often as souvenirs of their experience. Customers usually will buy with their hearts rather than their heads when you provide experiences. Provide services that people will be delighted with like a ship home ability, so they do not have to worry about traveling with their unique keepsakes. Design your experiences deliberately with your target clientele in mind.

If you are a retail store: BE DIFFERENT! If your predominate shopper is a mother with kids, provide something interactive for the kiddos to do while mom browses. If it is husbands or boyfriends, provide a recliner with the big games on. The bottom line is to know your customer and get into their mind. 

If you are a local restaurant: BE DIFFERENT! In my hometown, several restaurants stand out: Props, Fubar, Taste, The Gulf, The Red Bar, Twisted Grape, Painting with a Twist…. What makes them stand out? These restaurants are different, unique, and often eclectic in their experience, and the food is tasty and unique.

Additionally, it goes without saying: Have happy and engaged employees with fanatical customer service. Treat our visitors and your customers as if they were all VIPs! While they are not retail stores, the concepts in this article apply to hotels, lodging, and places that sell activities. BE DIFFERENT! Provide an experience, make an emotional connection, and your sales will increase.

4. Give Customers Unique Products and Services 

rainbow chameleon is very different from the green oneWhen it comes to local, providing unique products and experiences that a person cannot get anywhere else is critical to standing out. Exclusive products and Services are imperatives to making customers rabid fans of your business, driving word of mouth, social marketing, and ultimately, visits and sales.

We all know that quaint little store we visited on vacation that was different and drove us to buy products we did not need but could not emotionally do without. Scarcity is a powerful motivator for human beings to attribute value. The great thing is that people will pay you more for those scarce products and unique services.

5. Embrace & Meld Technology 

couple using technology to browse products in a storeInformation technology is not a "nice" to have; it is table stakes to be in business in today's market of digital natives. Technology isn't just about the millennial generation; it is about people of all ages and social and economic status. Everybody has a smartphone. Moreover, businesses have to do more with less, and technology is the enabler. Technology is also an enabler to servicing and providing unique experiences to customers.

Computers and networks are a necessity. They provide productivity while at the same time, they must maintain the privacy and security of your customers' and your businesses' data. At Bit-Wizards, Protect Your Privates is a mantra of ours.

In today's market, providing Wi-Fi is a standard expectation of customers. Use that expectation. Engage the customers with interactive store guides or social sharing. It will pay dividends and give you insight into what motivates and interests them.

I'll leave you with somethings to think about on this topic: What says more about your business? Using a cash register in your business from the 1980s or a carbon copy order receipt booklet, you handwrite out a sale?
Checking out with a modern point of sales system? A system that tracks customer purchases, checks out in seconds, updates inventory, emails a receipt, solicits reviews, and gets permission to send offers to engage with customers on a personal level?

Every business today is a technology company. Embrace it!

6. Digital First

customer searching for products onlineThere are some terms in Retail called "Click and Mortar" or "Bricks and Clicks." These terms refer to businesses that have both a web experience and a physical store. The simple fact is that every business must be digital-first in the experience economy. The simple fact is that people will find you via your website. Your website has to be an experience and an extension of your brick and mortar location.

Everyone has a smartphone. It is "the great" consumer equalizer. Instantaneous access to data and information at their fingertips. Use that and drive them to your storefront. Connect with them and engage them so that they become your heralds.

Even today, in 2020, I still hear: That internet thing is a fad. My customers don't use the web. We only need a "web presence." Your business may not be dead yet, but I am confident that business hospice will be calling on you soon. Digital First is a business imperative.

7. Be Social 

customer using social mediaIn addition to hearing that the internet is a fad and that a business only needs a web presence. I also hear business owners say that their customers do not use social media.

The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. As of 2019, Statistica reports that 79% of the entire United States population uses social media.

Customers look for social validation in their buying choices. Social media allows you to create brand awareness. Next to Google Search and the World Wide Web, social media is one of the first places consumers look for information on products and services. Social media allows you to engage with customers and potential customers on their terms and provides for opportunities for customers to share information about your products and services. Referrals from other satisfied customers are a powerful testament and motivator for potential customers to buy from you.

You should embrace and utilize social media to engage your customers.  

8. Measure Everything

Business owners must always measure sales, profit, inventory, price history, etc. These are the basics of business finance 101, and they include your Profit & Loss Statement, Balance Sheet, Statement of Cash Flows, and other financial statements. If you are having trouble with financial statements, seek out a professional CPA. 

Business fundamentals aside, what matters is the customer. Measure customers, inventory, and anything that will give insight into your business. Finding new ways to learn insights into what matters to customers or other business operations can provide you a competitive edge. 

In Retail, some businesses are using sensors and location services to track customers as they move through their stores. This data allows them to analyze to gain critical insights into improving shelf space, offerings, and placements. One store I know uses this data to serves up coupons in real-time as customers walk the store to entice them to buy.

The Times, They Are A-Changing

As the singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan wrote: "The Times They are Changing." Times are changing; it is just that the pace of business is changing exponentially. Embrace change and thrive. In subsequent years Bob Dylan felt the folk movement had hijacked him and that his independence as an artist was compromised. As a result, Bob donned an electric guitar and wrote "Like a Rolling Stone" based on the adage "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss." He was asserting in the song that he was not a commodity; he was independent and unique as an artist. Stand still, gather moss, and be somebody's commodity, or roll like a stone, be different, stand on your own, and make your path.  

You are EMPOWERED! As a business owner, more than any other time in history, you are enabled with more technology, data, analytics, and information about customers and their behavior, likes, dislikes, and perceptions.

Retail isn't dying; it is changing. Don't prep because it is the end, prep because change is inevitable for survival in business today. You must continue to roll the stone, be independent, be remarkable, and change. If you stop changing, you will face certain death, but the rest of retail will continue. Your business and your customers rely on you to keep pace, be different, and thrive. Embrace Change!


Vincent W. Mayfield, Chief Executive Officer
Vincent W. Mayfield