Archives for March 2008

What Do Retail Sales People Do?

Consistently, the post on my blog that has been read the most is “Short-Circuit” City Admits Defeat.

I criticized Circuit City for their decision to lay off their most highly compensated sales staff. I was assuming that they paid their staff a combination of salary and commission. So my conclusion was that they were laying off the sales people who earned the most commissions. Rather short-sighted in my opinion.

Last week I was speed-reading through a stack of old magazines and I saw an article praising Circuit City’s new “24/24 Pickup Guarantee.” You order the product on-line and Circuit City promises that you will be able to pick up your order at the local store within 24 minutes. If they do not fulfill their promise, the customer will receive a $24.00 Circuit City Gift Card.

OK. Fine. “Bricks and Clicks” in action. Order it on-line and pick it up in the store. Order it on-line and return it at the store, No hassle. No big deal. No need for salespeople.

I was passing by a Circuit City store over the weekend and so I stopped in for a visit. I wanted to see if the “vibe” in the store had changed. Not much. The store was better merchandised. But one thing remained the same:

All of the sales people were milling around. Either walking aimlessly or chatting with their associates. Not once, in the twenty minutes that I spent in the store, did one sales person approach me. I tried picking up some product (pretending that I was interested in purchasing it.) I tried my best to act like a customer in need of assistance. No luck.

No sale!

I left with this question: “What actually is a front-line” sales person employed to do in a retail store?”

  • Stock the shelves and re-merchandise the product?
  • Greet the customer and answer their questions?
  • Pretend that you are helping a customer on the telephone?
  • Actually, help customers to make a purchase?

For the most part, I never expect any help from the “front-line” staff at a retail chain store. Not just Circuit City. This also applies to Best Buy and Barnes & Noble, etc. When I go to Costco I know what to expect. It is a warehouse / members-only store. It is set up for self-service and this is reflected in the lower prices that they offer.

Why do we need sales people? If a store does employ sales people, what do they tell them to do? What is their goal? How do they train them?

Personally, if I ran a consumer electronics store, I would imitate The Apple Store concept of “The Genius Bar.”The place to go for advice, insight and technical support. Brilliant! Simple! Valuable!

I think that you could have a variation of this in a book store as well. Have a few knowledgeable and personable staff members share the advice and insight about a variety of books with the customers. Go beyond having a selection of “Our Staff Recommends” books. Actually interact with your customers. Make it memorable. Make it an experience! Make sales!

When I do have a positive experience with retail sales people I make a point of writing about it. Here is a short list of positive posts. See if you can find the common element!

What experiences have you had? Please share your stories. Write your comments below.

The Magic of Hyper-Links

For some reason I missed this story when it was originally published in The Wall Street Journal:

“Borders Tries About-Face on Shelves” – by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg

I am always on the look-out for stories on In-store merchandising, book publishing and bookstores. But I missed this one.

However, I stumbled across it via a series of hyper-links:

  1. A post on Seth Godin’s Blog – “Do you have” vs. “Do you want” which referenced…
  2. A post on the Brand Autopsy Blog – “Borders Reducing Its Borders” which was commentary on the original WSJ story about Borders Bookstores’ decision to:
    1. Place more of their books “face-out” on their shelves vs. the traditional “spine-out” style (common in libraries)
    2. This means cutting back on the number of individual titles stocked in each store by @ 10% (9,350 titles)
    3. Because when this new merchandising strategy was tested in a prototype Borders Bookstores, sales of the individual titles placed “face-out” increased by 9%

For anyone who has a life outside of book publishing, book selling and libraries this may seem like a “no-brain-er.”

“Some think the move is overdue. Unlike modern supermarkets, booksellers haven’t done enough to make books look attractive on the shelves, says John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,” he says. “You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It’s a little bizarre that it’s taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.”

“To be as enticing as possible…” As in to pick up the book, look inside and decide to purchase it! Continue reading “The Magic of Hyper-Links” »

It’s So Simple – That’s Why It Takes Hard Work

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Great advice! Difficult to achieve. But I am working on it.

I am making a concerted effort to write in a more compact style. One that is better suited for blogs and for reading on-line. It requires a lot of work – just as anything worth achieving does.

As part of my study, I have been researching a variety of blogs.  One of the best is “Seth Godin’s Blog.” Simple, direct, compelling.

Click here to read his post on the difference between “urgency” and “importance.”

I mean no disrespect to Stephen Covey – he devoted 50 pages to explaining and illustrating this concept – but Seth captured the essence in just these few words:

“Add up enough urgencies and you don’t get a fire, you get a career. A career putting out fires never leads to the goal you had in mind all along.

I guess the trick is to make the long term items even more urgent than today’s emergencies. Break them into steps and give them deadlines. Measure your people on what they did today in support of where you need to be next month.

If you work in an urgent-only culture, the only solution is to make the right things urgent.”


The Benefits of Brevity

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

– Mark Twain

Actually, this is going to be a short post. I am going to share six of my favorite quotations on the topic of “brevity” with you. I will make the briefest of comments after each.

Tell me what you think – in a few words, please!

1) The opening quote by Mark Twain.

  • When writing an article or a speech, spend more time deciding what to take out than what to put in.
  • Edit – mercilessly!
  • Make you point, stick to it, support it and drive it home to your audience.
  • Easier said than done!

2) “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” – Thomas Jefferson

  • Edit – mercilessly!
  • Use a two syllable word rather than one with three.
  • History’s most memorable speeches use very few words:

3) “A speech should be as long as a piece of string – long enough to wrap up the package.” – Anonymous

  • Enough said!

4) “Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” – Mark Twain

  • That is why I love and collect quotations.
  • Edit – mercilessly!

5) “If you can’t state your position in eight words or less, you don’t have a position.”– Seth Godin

  • And your audience won’t remember what you said.
  • And your audience won’t know what to do as a result.

6) “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

  • re: “Be seated.” Don’t talk yourself out of the sale!

OK – some tasty morsels to chew on.

Please share your favorite quotations with our readers. Just keep it short and to the point!

The Medium is The Message

“If the news is that important, it will find me.”

– A college student responding to a focus group question

The times, they are a changin’. No doubt about it. The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, etc.  They have had to change, albeit reluctantly.

There has been a shift in power:

The mainstream media no longer control how their content is delivered – it can be forwarded by a friend or colleague. There are multiple channels where it can be accessed – original content frequently appears as a “link” on a competitors website. And, of course, the mainstream media no longer control when their content can be read or seen or heard.

I no longer wait for the “thump” of the Sunday edition of the New York Times to hit my doorstep. That used to be my signal to wake up, make the coffee and relax for a few hours absorbing the news and views of the newspaper of record.

I ended my subscription to the paper almost two years ago. I do not miss the full page ads from Macy’s and Bloomingdale. But I am sure that those department stores miss me. Or at least my subliminal attention. And I am sure that the New York Times misses both the revenue they got from my subscription and the advertising revenue from Macy’s and Bloomingdale. I will admit, however,  to missing the two hours of sitting in my easy chair on Sunday morning!

The times they are a changin’.

Take this morning. I found this headline intriguing:

Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass It On – by Brian Stelter

So I clicked on it to read it. However, it is original content from the NY Times but I found it on the website. This is now a common occurrence. I call it “Drudging the content.” This is a reference to the popular news website, The Drudge Report which does no actual reporting. It simply – and effectively – populates its only web page with “links” to original content found on other websites.

Does it really matter where I get the article from? Not to me.

I do hope that MSNBC and The NY Times have some sort of reciprocal revenue arrangement worked out. But that is not of my concern. To quote the unnamed college student, “If the news is that important it will find me.”

I titled this post, “The Medium is The Message”  as a tribute to Marshall McLuhen, a Canadian educator who coined the phrase in 1964. Here is a short definition of the phrase, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhanmeaning that the form of a medium imbeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived, creating subtle change over time. The phrase was introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964.[1] McLuhan proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study; he said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself.

I first remember hearing this phrase when I was 17 in 1967. I was standing in line waiting to see the movie, “The Graduate” and was discussing this concept with my friends. I continue to retain a vivid image of that evening in my mind – 41 years later! Both McLuhan’s concept and the movie have had a profound impact on my thinking.

Just as YouTube, Facebook and the other Social Networks are having a profound impact on our current culture. Continue reading “The Medium is The Message” »

Getting the Competitive Edge in News Reporting

Gathering and reporting the news has always been a highly competitive business. It is cut-throat. The race to get “the scoop” or to “break the story” is how reputations are made.

Daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, the 6:00 PM network news, 24/7 cable news, the Internet. The medium changed. However, the way that news was gathered and reported did not change so much.

Until recently.

To properly report a story you had to be there. On-the-ground. Live and in-person. You needed access to your subjects (and their handlers) in order to obtain exclusive interviews. You needed to be present in order to report “leaks” from anonymous sources. The reason that reporters needed to be on the scene was to report the “back story” – the story behind the story.

But now there is a new story. And this time it is about the process of gathering and reporting the news:

“The Buzz on the Bus: Pinched, Press Steps Off” – This is the story in today’s New York Times.

Except… It was also the lead political story on the MSNBC website. And it had a prominent placement on The Drudge Report. And The Huffington Post and at least a half a dozen other Internet “news” sites.

Here is a brief excerpt from the NY Times piece written by Jacques Steinberg:

“Traveling campaign reporters say they try to do more than just regurgitate raw information or spoon-fed news of the day, which anyone who watches speeches on YouTube can do. The best of them track the evolution and growth (or lack thereof) of candidates; spot pandering and inconsistencies or dishonesty; and get a measure of the candidate that could be useful should he or she become president.

Deep and thoughtful reporting is also being produced by journalists off the trail. And some news organizations that can afford it are doing both. But the absence of some newspapers on the trail suggests not only that readers are being exposed to fewer perspectives drawn from shoe-leather reporting, but also that fewer reporters will arrive at the White House in January with the experience that editors have typically required to cover a president on Day 1.”

(Click here to view a slide show accompanying the NY Times article.)

So, today, many news reporters do not have to put up with inconvenient travel schedules, stripping down in order to pass through airport screening machines, fast-food diets, suspicious hotel accommodations and a noticeable lack of sleep. Their editors don’t even need to go to the expense of installing expensive connections to The Associated Press (AP) or Reuters. They just need a 24/7 broadband connection to The Drudge Report.

The Drudge Report is one of the most widely viewed Internet sites. Almost every political reporter maintains a constant connection to his site. And Matt Drudge does not even report! He collects the news stories that others report and he creates “headline links” to the original sources. The only editing that he does is to select the stories to place on his one-page website and to determine their placement or prominence.

And now, it appears, that many mainline media are “doing the Drudge.” They are populating their pages via “links” to the original reporting that others perform. They need news content that is constantly updated. However, the costs of actually going out into the field to gather reports are rapidly escalating at the same time that their subscription base and advertising revenue are in a precipitous free-fall.

So what can the media do? Create “links” to other media sites? This is not a blatant case of “passing off as their own” the original content that others create. After all, the original sources are always credited – and I hope compensated!

“The Medium is the message.”

Marshall McLuhan coined that phrase in 1964. That was at a time when the visual media, especially television was rapidly replacing newspapers, books and radio as the preferred medium for news and entertainment.

Perhaps now, 44 years later it is time to reapply this phrase to our analysis of news reporting – especially in the arena of politics. Continue reading “Getting the Competitive Edge in News Reporting” »

Vocal Graffiti – You Know

Speaking in public is a challenge. Most people fear it. Speaking in public, with cameras recording what you say and how you say it, is even more challenging. When your audience watches the video – days, weeks or even years later – it no longer appears to be a “live event.” The “live” audience that applauds your spontaneity, given the heat of the moment, is a different audience from the one that views the video through a different filter. The filter of time. The filter of history. The filter of “gotcha!”

This is the audience who will point to your grammatical lapses as proof that you are not as educated as you claim. This is the audience who can now “prove” that you lack the experience that you claimed to have. This is an audience that most speakers completely disregard – at their peril!

This is the age of YouTube. This is the dilemma that Sen. Hillary Clinton finds herself in. YouTube sleuths and the Mainstream Media are falling all over themselves to show how Sen. Clinton’s recollection of her “dangerous” arrival in Bosnia is dramatically different from her actual arrival as documented by news reports on the scene those many years ago.

It is not just the case that the “video never lies.” The “video never dies!”

The video is always there, lurking in the archives, ready to bite us wherever and whenever. And video is now viral – its reach is global and instantaneous.

So… if you are already fearful of speaking in public, you have a few more things to learn: Continue reading “Vocal Graffiti – You Know” »

What Price is Right?

I was surprised to see this story on the front page of the Sunday New York Times:

At Megastores, Hagglers Find Prices are Flexible

It seems that “haggling” over prices has made its way from the street corner into Aisle 3 at Best Buy and Home Depot.

“Savvy consumers, empowered by the Internet and encouraged by a slowing economy, are finding that they can dicker on prices, not just on clearance items or big-ticket products like televisions but also on lower-cost goods like cameras, audio speakers, couches, rugs and even clothing.

The change is not particularly overt, and most store policies on bargaining are informal. Some major retailers, however, are quietly telling their salespeople that negotiating is acceptable.”

So now, the big-box stores that are already offering aggressively priced merchandise, clearance racks and “door buster” sales have added yet another weapon in the pricing war.

Good news for the consumer? Yes!

If you drive your car to a shopping mall or a big-box store your willingness to spend is already compromised due to the high price of gasoline. You are looking for any extra incentive before you make a purchase. You have scoured the ads and already know what is on sale. And now, you can practice your bartering skills to drive home an even bigger bargain. This is now socially acceptable – the New York Times says so – right on today’s front page!

Bad news for profits? Perhaps.

When a business sells a product or service they either realize a profit or a loss. How big a profit? How deep the loss? That depends upon the price at which the goods were purchased or manufactured and the price for which they were sold. If you own a store, do you know your “break-even” point? Does your staff? Are you sure? Have you trained them on this?

Products that remain on the shelf (or in inventory) for too long lose value. So, unless you sell precious metals or vintage wines that appreciate in value over time, it is better for you to “move the goods” off the shelf and sell them – even if you do not get your desired price.

Bad new for independent retailers? No as bad as you would think.

Let’s forgo the word “Haggling” – it has a negative connotation – and talk instead about price negotiation.

There can be little doubt that our sluggish economy is forcing most consumers to think twice before making many purchases. We see this most dramatically in the area of “discretionary” spending – electronics, entertainment, fashion, etc. Consumer purchases in these areas has noticeably slowed down.

What’s a retailer to do? Advertise even lower prices? No! Definitely not! This only encourages shoppers to price compare and to use your advertised pricing to get a better price – at your competitor’s store.

Price negotiation is not a bad thing. It is a misunderstood concept. And it can work out to benefit both parties -the seller and the buyer. Successful negotiations lead to a “win-win” situation. One in which the buyer gets some or all of what they want (a lower price, an upgrade, no charge for shipping, etc.) and the seller gets some or all of what they wanted (sell a product that has been sitting around, sell more items – a quantity purchase, sell accessories at a full mark-up, etc.)

Negotiation requires training and information. Most big-box stores suffer high employee turn-over rates. The staff does not stay put long enough for good training  to become effective. An independent store that invests in staff development can turn this to their advantage. Continue reading “What Price is Right?” »

Stop Talking and Start to Listen!

“One thing talk can’t accomplish is communication. This is because everybody’s talking too much to pay attention to what anyone is saying.”

– P.J. O’Rourke

I’ve had a busy week. I have not watched much television. Specifically, I have not watched any of the television “talk shows.” Wow – what a relief! My mind is not filled with the sound of the shouting matches that pretend to be political discussion.

I now realize that these shows – Talk Radio, TV Talk Shows –  are, indeed, correctly labeled. They ARE talk shows. All talking, all the time!

Here’s an idea: Let’s start a new type of show – Listening Shows!

The premise: The host or a panelist asks a question and actually allows their guest to answer the question without interruption. And then something truly remarkable happens: they discuss what the guest said! They respond to the response. They continue the dialogue. They listen to what is being said, they question what was not said. All seek to understand!

You’ve got to admit that this would be a radical departure from the present situation.

We could turn this concept into a Game Show – “What Did I Just Say?” or “The Wheel of Conversation.”  “Jeopardy” could become “Listening.” Or is it really the case that The Art of Listening is in Jeopardy?

Here’s how this could work: We would reverse the premise of “Jeopardy.” Rather than have the contestants respond with “The Question” e.g. Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? we could simply have the contestants answer the question.

Pretty silly – sure.  Naive? Perhaps. Idealistic? Definitely!

I am glad that I went for a week without watching a single political talk show. These are not panel discussions. They are “shooting galleries.” Each “paid expert” on the panel just shoots off their mouth. They try to shoot as many rounds of ammunition (their point of view) as possible.

Unfortunately, this model seeps into our culture. I reflect back to the lyrics to the theme song for the movie, “Midnight Cowboy:”

“Everybody’s talkin’ at me. I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’. Only the echoes of my mind.”

Perhaps, someday, we can reverse the trend and have a lyric that proclaims:

“Everybody’s listening to me. They hear every word I’m sayin’. They know exactly what’s on my mind.”

Perhaps… Someday!

Let me know what you think. I promise to respond to what you say – not just offer my opinion! Add you comment or thought in the space below:

Learning from Experience

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

sales-autopsy.jpgOn a recent airplane ride, I passed the time by reading “Sales Autopsy: 50 Postmortems Reveal What Killed the Sale,” by Dan Seidman. A very humorous book. And instructive. Humorous, because some of these tales of botched sales are truly “over the top” Instructive because we learn more from our mistakes that we can from our successes. And Seidman does a good job of deconstructing the tale of each lost sale and turning it into a “lessons learned” opportunity.

However… our natural tendency is to look at the mistakes that others make and to say either, “that could never happen to me,” or “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

We can learn by studying the mistakes that others make. But we only advance when we candidly study our own behavior with the intention of seeking continuous improvement. Self-assessment leads to self-improvement. The key questions to ask ourselves are:

“What worked – and why did it work?”

“What didn’t work so well – and why not?”

“What can I do to prevent this from recurring?”

“What have I learned- and how can I incorporate this knowledge?”

Project managers are taught to conduct “post-mortem” meetings at the conclusion of each project. “What lessons did we learn during this project?” Project managers are trained to document these lessons learned so that future projects will benefit from this body of knowledge.

Within the first five minutes of each CSI: Las Vegas, New York or Miami episode we are inside the autopsy room. Most of the evidence that drives the investigation comes from an examination of the corpse. The clues are there. But we have to be trained to know what to look for. And skilled in how we apply that information.

The CSI team is trained not to jump to conclusions but rather to follow the evidence. Follow the same routine when you perform your sales autopsy. Examine the evidence. Follow it to the root. Find the real reason why you lost the sale.

You made the sale? Great! But, before you go off for a well-deserved celebration, stop…! Do a sales autopsy. Look for the clues. What steps did you land the sale? What questions did you ask? How well did you listen to the answers? What questions did you use to follow-up? How did you demonstrate the use of the product? What approach did you use in closing the sale?

What did you learn as a result? How will you ensure that you utilize these lessons learned in the future?

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

– Leo Tolstoy