Retail Is A Lost Art (and Why Digital Is Gaining Ground)

I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky. I stumbled into a job with an electrical retailer many years ago. I didn’t realise just how fortuitous that had been. I found myself within a team of retail elite – the high performers – the ones that always won the awards, smashed targets and received the biggest bonuses in our area.   My good fortune stuck as I moved around to different stores in different areas. Once again, I found myself surrounded by the cream of the crop.

Personally, I believe that I had the finest retail education money could buy…. and I was being paid to learn.

Over the years I had some tough managers. When I say tough, I mean really tough. You were there to do a job, not to receive a pay packet for doing the minimum amount of work possible. Despite them driving the team very hard, staff turnover was very low indeed. The sales team would have their gripe and moan but they bonded well and many remained lifelong friends.

One of my toughest retail managers back then has gone on to do very well with his own businesses. He was very difficult to work for at times but I have him to thank now.

Because of such an intense education, I have subsequently destroyed my wife’s shopping experience as I wander around stores observing everything and making mental notes as I go. I never switch off.

I learned so many skills that delivered results. Based on my observations of retail over the last few years, I could guarantee that if you put me onto a shop floor now to manage it, sales would go up.

I recently went back into a couple of stores at that electrical retailer. I was disappointed at what I found. From here, I decided to visit some other stores and they too were disappointing. As I posed as a shopper I briefly listened into a couple of staff conversations with managers. It was clear that the tail was wagging the dog.

Here are some initial observations:

  • Managers were not driving their team
  • Staff are only interested in the pay, not the job.
  • There is a lack of discipline / professionalism in store
  • No one takes pride in their stores
  • Retailers have forgotten that it is about the detail
  • Retailers are cutting the biggest cost – people

Bricks and mortar retail is widely considered to be in a downward spiral but I believe this is a self-made problem. To drive profitability, retailers are cutting costs – headcount on the shop floor. “Let’s make everything self-serve so we don’t need as many people”. Anyone who has been a sales person on the shop floor knows that people buy from people. So many times, I have had someone come in to by a £299 washing machine and walk out with a £600 washing machine and with a warranty on top. I have had people walk in to buy a £500 PC and walk away having spent £2,000. Shoppers do not trade themselves up or cross sell. People on the shop floor can do that.

If you are going to give poor service in store, why should shoppers bother?? Why should shoppers make the effort to drive into town, pay to park and battle the crowds only to have some jumped up twenty something (who is busy chatting with their colleague about how they are going to get “proper wasted in the cocktail bar”) look at you in disgust when you disturb their conversation?? Why should shoppers deal with dirty stores, confusing displays, tickets all over the floor? Great service (unfortunately) comes as a shock in today’s retail market place.

Why go to such lengths to shop they can just buy online and save themselves the hassle?

See my point?

Having been part of many winning retail teams while I worked in stores, I can see that retail is fast becoming a lost art.

The good thing is, bricks and mortar CAN be restored. There are too many things that can be done to be listed here but the following list is a few to start with:

Take Pride In The Store

Seriously, stores should be at opening standard every day, not just the day the ribbon is cut. Shelves should be filled, faced up, clean and ticketed correctly. Linked to this is…

Give Ownership

Give individuals part of the store to own. Make it their responsibility to ensure that the standards are high all the time. Encourage respect for each other’s department.

Set Very High Expectations

The store team should know what is expected of them. Raise the bar, set the expectations high. If people are not comfortable with those high expectations, then it should be time for them to consider a new career. This might sound very harsh but do you want people in your store who want to be the best or those who just want a wage at the end of the month?

Managers Need to Drive From The Front (and Behind)

I have managed sales floors from 1,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet. Manage how you cover ground smartly and the team will feel like you are always there to support them. The manager’s office should always be empty. Sometimes staff need to be pushed (particularly if they are having an interesting chat with their colleague!).

It Is Either Right Or Wrong. No Grey Areas

I recently caught up with someone from my days at the electrical retailers. They had a store inspection by the area manager. An electrical superstore has thousands of products. This store was immaculate; it was like it had just opened. There was a problem though – 2 products were out of price logic. As a result, the store didn’t get the 100% grade. 2 products out of thousands. In today’s world, this may seem incredibly harsh but may be that is why online is taking sales.

Store Managers Need To Be Thick Skinned

The most successful managers I worked for were thick skinned. They were not there to be your friend, they were there to get a job done. They were hell bent on creating a team of retail elite. They only wanted those who wanted that too.

So, back to my point about Retail being a lost art. I believe it is. Retailers should consider how shoppers FEEL when they:

  • Walk into a store
  • Interact with staff
  • Buy a product
  • Walk out of the store

Before you start worrying about activation’s, entertainment and shopper engagement, make sure that when you do it, it is resting on solid foundations.

An old retail saying still rings true, people shop with their feet. If bricks and mortar doesn’t deliver, online will.

Thank you for reading and sharing.


One Red Kite provide Mystery Shopping services for retailers and brands to help them better understand the day to day situation on the front line. For more information on how they are different and can benefit you and your business, please contact or call +44 (0) 7739 752 272.

Have a great week.


Founder & Managing Director
One Red Kite Limited

Author of “Travel Retail : The Insider’s Guide”
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