Once upon a time, I was a retail store owner – operator of a brick and mortar bookshop. It was a labour of love for this book tragic!
The Australian Booksellers Association doesn’t consider an independent bookshop viable in a town whose population is approximately 5,000. Our town was the regional centre for up to 15,000 people; but that was still considered a challenge.
I continued to work part-time with my husband in our Farm Management Advisory business, while working full-time in the bookshop. Usually, I employed one other staff member for Saturdays and occasional backup – but unless I out of town or on holidays you would fine me at the bookshop.
I didn’t take a salary. I did buy a lot of books at cost price. So many books came across my counter that it was irresistible! And I occasionally took a small drawing.
I really loved that shop! So did the town, my kids and my husband. We only ran it for five years, with a stock turnover goal of three to four times a year. Annual turnover grew from $80,000 in Year 1 to $250,000 in Year 5.
There are many ways to measure success in business – and I guess No. 1 would be profit. Because why else are you in business? Otherwise, it eats into funds available to you and your family. And our children were still young enough that every cent counted.
My husband was making a good living and the bookshop met its own costs, provided a welcome service to the town, employment for one other person – and I was in heaven!
There are enough success measures there for me!
Since that experience, I’ve had a hyper-awareness (particularly around Christmas) of the stresses and pressures that retailers face. I feel it in my heart as I observe the ebb and flow, comings and goings of retail business around me.
Take a moment yourself to notice and sympathise amid your Christmas retail splurge. See the shops that are rocking it? You’ll see there are many people browsing or queuing; staff are overwhelmed tending to urgent and often impatient customers.
But at the end of the day, they feel satisfaction. That the numbers are up. That they’ll meet wages, overheads and perhaps make a small profit. That they haven’t overstocked but stocked enough. That they’re surviving another Christmas, will perhaps make it to next Christmas, and another trading year.
Then take a 360 degree look around the mall, arcade or high street you’re standing in. How many other shops can you see that are quiet? I don’t know why they’re quieter; perhaps it is just that they’ve a niche market. Maybe their product isn’t the current fashion.
Perhaps, Christmas is not their season to shine.
How have they marketed? Do they present in an appealing way? Is there enough stock, offering the abundance of choice we all expect and demand?
Are these businesses just tired and can’t find the juice to work at it anymore?
In retail, the need to earn your big bucks at seasonal times, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, mother and father days to name some – and the abundance of choice we now have and expect – have lead to the demise of the retail specialist. In my opinion.
We need more reasons nowadays to give a storefront retailer our attention and they need our business, more and more.
They need to give ‘added value’, which can be done well and be beneficial to all with a few welcome additions. It can be particularly attractive if the extra choice is related to your core product.
Think books – and chocolates! Books and booklights, bookmarks, book bean bags. Books on audio CD. Books with complementary (tv tie-in) toys. Books and stationery! Behold, the budding author.
All the above product ideas add to the book experience – reading, writing, comfort, enjoyment and relevancy. Still specializing in books, but finding a way to add value for the customer. More reason for us to enter the store, stick around and buy.
When done badly though, there’s a hodgepodge of reasons to enter the store. Is it now too confusing? You saw something in the window that’s interested you, but when you scan it seems there’s no continuity or consistency. In fact, it can be straight up off-putting. Do you bother to go in?
If you do enter, try asking a question about or around that product. Chances are that the salesperson doesn’t know anything past the price, what they have in stock and whether they can order more. They won’t be able to engage much deeper than that, or promise anything else.
A good bookshop, however, with the right tools can really connect with you over that book, or author. For instance, how many other books has that author written, and in what format are they available? The due date of his next novel might already be in the system. The salesperson may also be able to tell you if the wholesaler still has stock and how many; yes, tools can be that good!
Somebody on the staff will enthuse with you about the author or the book itself. They’ll introduce you to other authors that you may enjoy, based on this one purchase. And they could set you on the path to a heavenly journey of years duration with somebody new.
If they’re a quality specialist bookshop. You won’t have this experience with a Target or Kmart store, you can be sure of that; on any product.
I would caution you though. However good your bookshop is – don’t expect too much extra engagement with staff in the week leading up to Christmas. They are exhausted, they are pulling their hair out, they’ve had too many negative experiences already to even face the good customer, and they just plain don’t have time! 😊
I have digressed, however.
I personally see those empty, quieter shops and I feel for them. Imagine them watching all the flowing traffic passing them by into competitor stores, and their hearts breaking.
Imagine, spirits lifting at footsteps, at bodies heading their way, only for their spirits to drop when the steps stop short; or walk right on by.
For a while, shops are opened with excitement and hope; but as the weeks go by and the time opportunity winds down, despondency sets in. The shopkeeper will either hang on longer each day hoping to catch the late shopper or will begin to close early and give up.
Come the New Year, there are now a few empty spaces in your mall, arcade or high street. Come the next Christmas season there is less competition, fewer brick and mortar stores, fewer opportunities to be tactile with your product choice, less human interaction, reduced liveliness in your mall, arcade or high street of choice.
My heart hurts as I observe the shops in my wanderings. Consumerism is not good for the soul. But it does give livelihood and meaning to the modern retail business and employment to many – especially the young and under skilled.
Retail business as we know it is on the way out. One day, the consumer of my generation and older will look around and miss the days when we could touch that dress, pick up that book, spray on the sample perfume – and talk to someone.
In another generation, shopping online will be the norm! And only the oldies will remember how it used to be. And another generation of the young won’t get. They won’t understand what the fuss was about; won’t know what they’re missing.
For all that there’ll be positives to a total consumer market operating in the cloud, there is a heart and soul connection to be lost.
Okay; we can buy what we want in one million different colours, at great prices, in a speedy and convenient manner. A drone will deliver and ‘happily’ collect and return the product when it is not quite what you expected.
But at what cost to the spirit of humanity.