Guest editorial: on consultants giving survival advice to retailers

by Gilbert Rose

Well, to engage in a little whimsical re-work of the memorable words of Winston Churchill: Never have so many given so much adding up to so little to so few (because we retailers, as everyone knows, are an endangered species and are dropping like flies).

First they tell us we must have a dynamite website and somehow, though it may hurt, engage in e-commerce which today seems to mean people staggering around making purchases with an app on their digital devices.

Then we’ve got to go multi-channel meaning they buy online but can pick-up in the store.

Then we’ve got to offer multiple payment options including cashless, Apple Pay, PayPal, Square,  etc., etc.  No one even talks about will calls and layaways anymore. Everything has to be very high-tech and very cool. It’s also important to have your sales people roaming the store with smart phones and apps so they can ring-up sales almost anywhere the customer is making a purchase.  This is what is known as “seamless”,  whatever “seamless” is supposed to mean.  Or you could go even deeper into the cyberworld by  just letting people take items with them, only to be magically billed later.

Then we’ve got to be conversant with Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat not to mention YouTube and Linkedin, if we expect anyone to even know that we exist.  I guess if you have some sort of aversion to social media you may just as well pack it in.

Now we’re being regaled with multiple stories about Millennials who don’t want to own anything  outright but prefer only to rent it or borrow it, and if it happens to be used or recyclable, well, so much the better.  Presumably if one is in the business of selling products, especially new products, his days are probably numbered according to the army of consulting gurus who bombard us multiple times daily with their wisdom and sagacity.

And let’s not forget the gimmick of the week;  curated subscription boxes filled with delightful products to be tried on and mostly returned.  It seems like the Silicon Valley techno-wizards just can’t wait to reinvent retail, and practically on a daily basis.

So, to all of you out there who make your living by giving advice, while I respect your efforts to enlighten, and understand your need to earn money by giving your clients what you think they need by way of suggestions and solutions, I must tell you that I am up to my eyeballs with the constancy of your counsel and the fecundity of your feedback. Enough already. You folks really don’t know any more about retail than anyone else, and, conceivably, a helluva lot less.

Silly me: I’ve always believed that retail was, and still is, all about carrying wonderful products, displaying them artfully, offering them at realistic prices, and then staffing your place of business with intelligent, sensitive, knowledgeable people who take genuine pride in and are passionate about what they sell, and care mightily about the well-being of the folks who are purchasing those products.  If that equation makes no sense to you, then you should get out of retailing and try your hand at computer programming or something similar, if you don’t mind my saying so.

And so, assuming I am correct in this (and I know that I am), how come all you geniuses keep blathering  incessantly on about Amazon and Walmart and the retail apocalypse and the digital revolution, and no one seems to give any thought to the time-honored and fairly obvious fundamentals of properly running a retail brick-and-mortar store?

As one attorney customer said to me a number of years ago, “This place is my adult candy store and I really enjoy shopping here.”  That pretty much summarizes what retailing should be all about; really pleasing people, making them feel special, and providing them with a memorable shopping experience.  When it becomes essentially little more than just turning a profit, well, that’s why we have so many online sellers willing to endure 30+ percent returns of things purchased online, hoping all the while that it will all somehow work out. And if it does, maybe they can find a little venture capital, go public and then cash out, because that’s really what their business model is all about.

As for brick-and-mortar retail, suffice it to say that it’s really not rocket science, if you’ll pardon the cliché.  It has a lot more to do with good judgment and common sense.

Gilbert Rose is a retailer from Chelsea Menswear, a 75-year-old business in Wyandotte MI. You can contact him at: grose@wyan.org)

8 Replies to “GUEST EDITORIAL: ON CONSULTANTS GIVING SURVIVAL ADVICE TO RETAILERS”

  1. This is the most genius analogy of the world of retail! Thank you so much for voicing! Hope for many
    to pay attention to the passions of creative retailing. All the best to you!

  2. Kudos to the writer, well said. Reminds of the old adage ” a consultant is someone that’s looking for a job”.

  3. The men’s retail business has been artificially bolstered by long term rents, aging baby boomers, and a lack of alternatives. The party’s over. Yes, there’s a lot of new technology that isn’t applicable or helpful, but to ignore your new environment is dangerous, foolish, and incredibly naive. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m sure these consultants are annoying, but your full-throated rejection of any new thinking will insure that your store is a nail salon within 5 years.

    1. I hate to be redundant, but I think I may have failed to post my response to Jim H (There I go again, falling behind on the techno-treadmill of our times). So, with apologies to Jim H and everyone else . . .

      Wanna bet (about the “nail salon” comment, that is)???

      Admittedly I may be something of a Luddite, but at age 84 with 57 years of experience in the men’s and women’s retail apparel business I think I may have earned the right to be a little cynical. Naturally things are always changing and evolving in the retail business, or any business for that matter. But change for the sake of change does not exactly impress me as a formula for success.

      I’m extremely fortunate that at this late stage in my life I not only continue to come in seven days a week but still truly enjoy the experience.
      I have a son and daughter-in-law plus a grandson-in-law working alongside me (and my wife who is three years older than I has only recently begun what I guess could be described as semi-retirement). Whatever we may lack in technological saavy (and make no mistake, we’re not totally behind the times) we make up for in energy, commitment and, though it may sound a little corny, passion.

      “Plus ca change, Plus ca la meme chose” is a slogan that still resonates with me. Besides, we’ve got a pretty good nail salon right across the street.

      1. I don’t doubt for a minute that you’re full of energy. Many of us should be so lucky at your age to have full-time jobs that aren’t menial labor. I think that’s terrific.

        History doesn’t repeat itself. It does rhyme, however.

        Good luck out there.

  4. Gilbert, now that was a great job of Consulting performed by you! And it was FREE!! Strange that I have not heard any of these suggestions from the Consultants, but I sure see a lot of Retailers being “Merchandised” right out of business, when they take on the OTB. I’m not saying that some don’t need that direction, but they rob themselves of what differentiates them from other stores. That elusive “Find” that creates excitement with the Owner, and then is presented to the Client, and never was a line item in the OTB. That’s how you build “Candy Stores”. Congratulations, Gilbert, you found the sugar!!

  5. There are many facets of this gem. My father (and I) are avid seekers. We WANT new ideas, we WANT to be shown new ways that make sense. He doesn’t reject good ideas; he rejects “sage” advice that is blather. It is not nice to be automatic in rejecting advice, and I am continually admiring of my father’s incessant search for anything that REALLY makes a difference. Advisers ask “Have you tried reaching out to your customers?”, as if such an idea is a revelation. That sort of thing grates on the nerves. For crying out loud – – – “Have you tried turning on the lights?” BRILLIANT, thank you so much.

    We want good advice, we want people offering insight for our specific niche. But retail is not like the word “jello”. It is radically different for an independent than anything ANY national chain has to offer, and what we largely hear is advice for those that want to market to a national audience in an “authentic” way.

    As a person who loved through the explosion of retail square footage in the 1980s, wherein my generation flocked to the malls and demanded to buy (truly insane days), it is now easy to recognize that the way businesses excelled before that time was what we have to do NOW.

    Of course, great merchandise that you can actually touch, and sense, and incredibly, actually try on, having people actually help you….and basically, it’s ALL just human contact. Being the authority in your field. Caring about the actual people that comprise your client list. Having old-fashioned systems in place that ensure the most basic things about any business relationship. The traffic we once had is unlikely to return. But the party is NOT over. As national chains implode, we will return to the days when independents manage this niche, far better and more genuinely (again) than all these 800-door “manufactured cool” places ever could. Retail has been destroyed by that cloning that makes everything the exact same, in every city in America. Get rid of the nationals (yeah, pretty much ALL of them, can you think of an exception?), and go back to the beginning and retroactively collect all the sales taxes that internet companies avoided to build their houses of cards. Honestly, I feel sorry for anyone that spends a dime on-line that could have bought in their own community from people they know and like. There is no citizenry there. There is only “I got mine”, the antithesis of community.

    Speaking of “antithesis”: Direct vendor competition with independent retail is guaranteed to lead to your own demise. While the product sells, we retailers grudgingly accept it, but there is no warmth there. Efforts to take what you should want to be mine before I can get it is just plain stupid if you want a retail network at all. If you want to kill your golden geese, keep it up. If you want them all to abandon your ship for others that want a real partnership (as it always used to be), keep it up. And then act surprised.

    So pithy advice about how to reconnoiter the new realities of menswear in this new, digital era…. well, those of us that know better tend to tune it all out, and get annoyed from time to time. The most gratifying thing in the world is having YOUNG people come to us for our advice and expertise, and leave having come to the realization that the experience blows away any national chain or internet experience. The circle turns, and the old ways reveal themselves to be the ONLY ways. For retailers AND vendors. Spoken of and taught by people like my father Gilbert.

    He still loves the business, as do I. We’re both just more and more comfortable being resolute and confident that the right way is the right way, and we’re getting stronger (and happier) as a result.

    1. “Direct vendor competition with independent retail is guaranteed to lead to your own demise.”

      Whose demise? If you mean vendors, I think that horse has left the barn.

Comments are closed.