To combat a recession: retail tactics and the mall wake-up call

For most large retailers, the last thirty years has been about stretching as far across mid-land America as possible, opening stores in malls on the fringes of big cities and in mid-size towns and communities, homogenizing the landscapes and centralizing decisions so that in most of the country, men, women, teenagers, and children could enjoy a huge selection of... the same stuff.

If the east and west coasts lead the trends, then middle-America picks them up a few seasons later, from the mall or from any department store, in their homogeneous packages, and with the stores using the same marketing techniques in Boise, ID, Topeka, KS, and Charlotte, NC. One group of people decide what should be sold and how it should be marketed, and in an era when people are spending less time buying high-prices clothes while munching on Auntie Anne's pretzel bites, this is an obviously outdated approach.

I worked as a sales associate in the Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, GA for almost three years, from the fall of 2007 to the summer of 2010, during what some might say was a pretty interesting time to be in that industry, watching from the inside as many companies began to crash and burn, when a store might make its monthly sales goal once in a year, maybe. The claws come out, to say the least. The first thing that happens is a flood of suped-up (read: desperate) sale promotions.

Buy jeans, get a shirt half off!

Spend $50, get $10 off!

All shirts, jewelery, shoes (insert your product here) BUY ONE GET ONE HALF OFF!

In the retail world, that last one is an actual term, BOGO, which might sound nicer if it was actually "buy-one-get-one," except that it usually means "buy-one-get-one-half-off."

I was never a fool walking into the mall, but after three years working in that grinding place, you learn all the tricks. You'd think people would realize that they're still spending more when they do the BOGO thing, and sometimes, if you are looking for two shirts or two necklaces, that can be handy. In most cases, people should more likely keep their wallet shut and bee-line it for the door-- especially when managers are training their sales associates to get you to add on items to your purchase, apply for a credit card, and even track you down in the fitting room to suggest additional items you might like to go along with the lot you've already hauled in there. It is oft-repeated to associates that the customer is three times more likely to buy something once they've tried it on.

If you've walked through the mall recently, you know how desperate people are. Those kiosks in the hallways are traps of awkward refusals; even I have trouble with them, and I am pretty immune to the tricks of the trade (sometimes I wish I could just write on my forehead, "Hey, I know your schemes, don't even try your open-ended questions on me, just let me shop," to shake them off as I enter a store.)

How refreshing, then, that some big-box department stores have finally admitted that maybe there is a better way to reach their nation-wide markets than by offering the same exhausted polo shirts and ripped jeans and bejeweled belts to everyone. From yesterday's article in the New York Times:

After decades of acquiring, consolidating and centralizing, the department store chain is rediscovering — and financially exploiting — its multiple local roots, advancing a trend that is quickly being adopted by other retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Best Buy.

It is a lesson many companies overlooked in the last 30 years as they rolled smaller stores into huge national brands, and headquarters mandated what the outlets in Biloxi or Boise should sell.

But years of economic turmoil for the retail industry have helped refresh memories. While many national retailers continue to see sales declines in a sour economy, Macy’s says its first full year of “going local” has helped increase sales significantly and “lifted the entire Macy’s performance,” according to its chairman and chief executive, Terry J. Lundgren.

Hallelujah, someone is paying attention to the markets. It does retailers no good anymore to continue to push from above the same tired tactics that were in place before the recession of circa 2008. Instead of desperately reaching with ever-greater numbers of promotions to try to get that same product out the door, perhaps the product must be changed, be more in tune with the market. People want to buy things that are specific to their area--like clothing based on school colors, and climate-appropriate jackets, for example--and money will always be spent on things like that.

In the case of these Macy's stores, the article points specifically to the Cumberland Mall in Atlanta, and their expansion in the last year of their hat department, whose sales have doubled accordingly, as they sought to give their southern and urban market what it wants.

“We have research information, and we think about household income and population size, but I think it’s much more accurate to have people living in the marketplace tell you, ‘This is who’s shopping in my store,’ ” Mr. Lundgren said.

I always thought it was silly to carry the same coats and sweaters at the Georgia September floorset switch as in the Ohio season switch, when it's still so hot out; accordingly, people in Cincinnati are not looking for bathing suits in January (nor, really, are Atlantans, but even less so for the mid-westerners). Yet this is taking the whole approach to the American market to a new level of regional consideration, for the better. There are plenty of arguments out there for "going local" for environmental reasons; how about going local for the sake of making a bigger buck on your market? When you have a strong East Asian community, offer more extra smalls; when you have a large Indian clientele, tweak your jewelry spread to include more gold items, less silver.

From the same article:

“In prior years, with the recession, it became all about cost-cutting no matter what,” said Esteban Bowles, a retail consultant with A. T. Kearney. “Now companies are seeing the light and looking for the rebound.”

If my years folding clothes at the mall taught me anything, it was that the whole bottom-line, make-every-last-dollar-we-can mindset is just as prevalent as you hear, and those retailers, they're all fighting--viciously--to win those economically wounded customers from each other. What hurts the most for sales associates is that they get grief, and pressure, from their managers, who get it from their regional managers, who get it from district- and national-level bosses. Everyone is trying to illustrate that they have what it takes to make money in retail, but maybe they need to start all over with their definitions of "retail." People will always need to buy things that they need and that appeal to them. Now, start from there.