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Brick by Brick
La Mer
Let me preface this post by saying that I do not have a business degree nor do I know what the corporate numbers look like. I will also NOT be mentioning any exact figures or stores by name outside of general reference in this post. What I do know? I'm a boots on the ground, in the trenches retail worker, and I am seeing brick and mortar stores pushing a distinct self destruct button---either deliberately or without realizing it I am not sure. It's one reason why I am actively seeking---among many many others---a new job and career.

This all started about a month or so ago when I really started to get fed up with my job and its current situation. It now has blossomed into much more---considering that the store chain I work for has just eliminated two key sales floor positions:Electronics and Jewelry.

Yes, you read that right.

Now, in the near 7 years I've worked in this store, I can't tell you how many times even with key people in those positions being on shift, I've heard the page for customer assistance to either department. Let's be honest. It's the two areas in the store that have customers asking the most questions or needing the most assistance. After all not everyone is super savvy on all the latest tech nor can one simply put their own watch battery in. What's even more baffling is the fact that these are also two of the most heavily shop lifted in dollar amount, not necessarily in items. That award goes to the health and beauty department with its thousands of small and easy to conceal items. Why would you, then, remove two key sales floor positions in order to cut costs?

Next time you want to shoot yourself, corporate, aim higher. Aim for your head, because this move is not only going to cost more than the hourly wage you were paying---a meager one at that---it is going to start the beginning of the end.

Do I sound a little doomsday saying here? Perhaps. But I can see that while this might not have dire consequences in the short term, the long term could see a steep decline not only in electronics and jewelry purchases but a decline in overall foot traffic all together.

Don't believe me? Take for instance the senior discount day each month. Originally that discount extended to everything in the store and if you were 55 or older you could come in and get that discount. There were cookies, juice, and coffee to welcome them, and it really seemed like a special date each month. But corporate totally botched this one too when they determined that not everything in the store would be eligible for the discount. Electronics was nixed. No diapers. Some health and beauty. No grocery. No optical/glasses. And most baffling of all? Paper and household chemicals (cleaning supplies). What do you think the seniors came in for the most prior to this change? PAPER AND CHEMICAL.  By the time they were done butchering the discount, the exclusions run so long that by the end of the list there's not a lot left to pick from.

What was the impact of this? Simple. Senior days still draw a fair amount and have a higher sale number than others, but they are much smaller and declining as time goes forward because other stores in town offer that discount on those items that we don't any more.

What was corporate's reasoning for rescinding these categories from the discount? It cost too much in the gross margin dollars to keep the discount as is---meaning that while the store got a ton more foot traffic and more inventory moved out the door the small margins they made in sheer profits on these items just was too much for them to continue offering it. I call cop out because while the margins might be smaller on these items, it draws the seniors in and they might be more obliged to push more into their carts outside their big draw categories----perhaps domestics and furniture and more---therefore making up for those margin losses over time.

So back to the cutting of the sales floor positions. Much in the same way the senior discount exclusions discouraged more seniors from choosing to shop the store, the absence of a sales person or a knowledgeable one for that matter in those areas will discourage even more. Sure, the trends of show room shopping---especially in electronics---is higher with smart phones these days, but I'd bet you that if someone who knows the ins and outs of the products on display and on the shelves talks to that customer and explains everything there is about it and such they might be persuaded just by sheer gratitude to purchase direct in the store without going online. Same goes for jewelry. It's one thing to see something on the internet, to see a nice picture, but to see it in person, to have a sales person that can show you how it looks or how the clasp works or how to set the time or whatever might make a customer that much more comfortable with the piece in question---and more likely to take it home with them.

I am often baffled by the decisions made at the upper corporate levels. I get the sneaking suspicion that either those in those high ranking positions have never worked at a store themselves or haven't in so long that they don't remember what it's like. They wring their hands over the bottom line all the time, looking to cut expenses, which is good, but not in the manner I've seen occur.

Customers are a retail store's bread and butter. It is a life blood. Without them, the store dies. Why, at the store level, does corporate make it harder all the time for the sales people, those in direct contact with those customers, to do their job? It makes no sense, and I think that more than the internet, more than show room shopping, more than the recent recession, more than anything, it is this strain upon the store employees that is harming brick and mortar stores across the board.

Factor in their low low wages (mine included) and you have a store team that may not always be motivated to make each and every customer 100% happy, and even if they do try, customers can tell when a worker is unhappy, unmotivated, or disinterested.

I'll wager that if corporate was to invest in their store teams rather than cut discounts or corners or key positions they'd find themselves doing much better all around---their precious bottom lines included. If they were to provide more incentives (and yes that does mean higher wages, at least more than poverty level for full time employees) they would most likely find that not only will their workers put more effort into their work, they'll get a bigger return.

Take how many customers go through a store each day, factor in how many are actually going to bother to write to the corporate office---usually to complain---and determine how many more would repeat if they encountered workers that felt what they did actually made a difference and wasn't just simply something to make peanuts at. Customers have complained about lack of friendliness, lack of courtesy, lack of availability of help continually since the height of the recession through now and probably beyond. Each of these problems could be easily addressed by investing in the employee.

By investing, I don't mean lip service. Don't have the CEO send out a chipper note thanking all the employees for their hard work and ask for more to keep things going. It's empty, it's transparent, and it's rather insulting. We know that there's no power or meaning behind those words---at least not where it counts. Raises are either so small they're not even worth getting or not at all---and any other incentives offered are either unattainable like a far off carrot.

Those of you who have seen the show Chuck know about the various contests done in the show's history. Big Mike, the store manager, wants his workers to push more product. He offers prizes such as an iPod or a sandwich to get them motivated. The whole contest is a scam. There are no prizes. He just wanted them to work harder. Certainly giving away product is not feasible, but all too often the "incentives" offered are not much better or any more real. The farce is that by telling the employee they are "vital" to the store and its operations that you'll convince them that they are that and will put more effort into what they do.

Another key phrase thrown around in retail these days is "do more with less" and it too is a misnomer. You can't turn to your store teams and say "I want you to do what you do but more" and then turn around and cut key positions, hours, and more. It strains the store team as a whole and it causes them to become discouraged and irritable. It is expecting way too much of those left---asking them to be happy with the ever important customer yet even more frazzled by the amount of work load demanded.

I offer up as a solution to replace the "do more with less" phrase with "work smarter not harder." Sure, they may have similar concepts in ways, but I think rather than taking way tools or pairs of hands to get the job done, try to make those tools better. Examine what works well with those tools and eliminate the rest.

Take for instance the signing process throughout the store for ad purposes. Each week a new ad is mailed out, and each week throughout the store signs are affixed to reflect that ad. All too often there are items that have the same sale price week to week to week. Take for instance a coffee pot that sells for $39.99 regular price but is often priced at $19.99 week to week to week. Why waste the paper to put up a new sign each and every ad for that coffee pot? It makes no sense to waste resource and energy on this only to turn and tell the store team they must do more with less or endure cuts.

Brick and mortar is hurting---but it can't, anymore than the entertainment industry, place the blame on just the internet. It has to examine itself, look inwards at each company, and see where it is fundamentally flawed. If it wants to survive in the "new economy" they talk about all the time, they won't have a choice.

Otherwise I am afraid that we'll see them continue on their declines, hitting a self destruct button of their own making.

It's also one of the big reasons that I think it is time for me to get out. I don't want to go down with the sinking ship---even if it takes decades for it to fully submerge.

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I agree with you, especially on the "do more with less" point. I said that in government as well: if you succeed at doing more with less, the conclusion winds up being that you could then do everything with nothing. It doesn't work.

That said, I do think employees also need to make some effort to take pride in what they do, no matter what it is. A lot of what you get out of a situation depends on what you put into it, and I've seen a lot of crap attitude and sense of entitlement on the part of all too many folk. Employees need to be supported to be able to keep feeling good, but it helps if they at least come in the door with the intent to do their best to help the business succeed. Both sides of the equation need improvement, I believe. :)

I agree, Mary, that the employee has to give a little, too. The worker has to have pride in what they do in order to earn those extra incentives. Not everyone should just get a bigger raise or an added bonus---in whatever form that may take.

I think the problem for most corporations---not just retail---is that they fundamentally see their workforce as numbers on a spreadsheet. Too often we're simply catalogued by our employee ID number probably paired with our hourly rate and they don't see the person behind it.

That makes it easier for the big cheeses to sit in their lofty offices and make decrees like "No more electronic sales floor people" rather than finding out just who these people are, what value to the company they provide, and how to take the good work they do and introduce that into the rest of the organization.

We get visits by our district managers, but I don't think they have any more say in how cuts or cost reductions are implemented any more than the average employee. They may be able to tell the upper tier about how well this or that store is working, but all too often I think the actual person doing the hard work in trenches again becomes an after thought, lost in the translation.

And I agree. The rate of the cuts and tools being taken away at store levels in order to the jobs required to attract and retain customers means we could be facing having to do so with next to nothing. That's a shame because I don't think retail work is inherently evil or a waste. It can make a difference for a customer when a worker does something for them or finds that crucial item they wanted/needed.

I just think that it is far too easy for the corporate mind to see everything in black and white----or red---and not the actual person working their tails off to make the big bottom line profitable. Consider how many stops you've had in a store and how many of those workers were just as clueless as you about where a product was or how a product worked. If, instead of trying to cut the team to bare bones skeletons, they were to invest in educating those workers on their areas and leaving that "expert" of that department to do their job just how much more profit they could make in the long run. Instead, as it currently stands, too often customers get fed up and walk out of a store because there is a lack of help or a knowledgeable person to assist in their purchase.

As a customer myself, I know I am more inclined to purchase something when I am 100% sure I know how and why it works. THAT is possibly the saving grace of retail right there---helping customers in that way---and is something no machine can ever truly replace.

Ding-ding-ding! We are in violent and total agreement! {{hugs}}

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