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  |  Merchandising   |  Corporate Retail Strategy   |  Chain Retailers Fail When They Lack Innovation

“This is how we've always done it" is the toxic phrase every retailer needs to ban from their organization immediately and forever.

DeAnna McIntosh, Global Retail and E-commerce Consultant, The Affinity Group International + Retailing Evolved

Seeing a headline about large, chain retailers closing stores or filing for bankruptcy no longer surprises me.

Is it sad? Yes.  However, I can’t say I am shocked, having been a witness “behind the scenes” of some of these retailers.

Here are some glaring signs that it’s time for a shake up in your retail organization (or, really any organization) to start driving retail innovation again and turn the business around:

1) Position stagnation is rampant in all levels of the organization

As the number of years an associate has been in the same role and department increases, their innovative output decreases. Change breeds challenges, which generate fresh ideas. Changing roles also brings new, unexpected perspective.  When I left a merchant role in apparel and accepted a buying role in ink, toner, and printers, it was a shock at first, but it was rewarding as I learned a new business model and it enhanced my buying skills.

An employee who stays in their position / department for many years is affectionately named, a “Lifer”.

A Lifer is someone who prefers to be comfortable, doesn’t like change, and accepts everything that comes along with their role – even if it means promotion is light years away or not even in their view, tasks are mundane, morale around them is low, and the passion left years ago.  Their concern is their steady paycheck, not having to learn anything new (or try anything new), and perhaps not wanting to move anymore or have to job hunt ever again.

I have found that Lifers in management roles also prefer to keep their teams close (again, pointing back to not liking change) and in tact.  When associates on their team want to grow and leave the team, they are told “they aren’t ready” or for some mysterious reason someone else gets the position so that associate does not leave the team.  The Lifer already knows that associate’s work style, quirks, and how to relate to them.  The associate leaving means they have to fill the open role with someone new that they have to learn all over again.ugh coffee mug

Great retail companies make it an HR strategy to not have associates in the same department for longer than 3 years.  Even if their role remains the same, switching the department and team ensures that fresh ideas and people are constantly pulsed throughout the organization.

To be clear, I am not saying that you are a Lifer if you remain at the same company for more than 3+ years.  I am referring to staying at the same company, in the same department.

2) “This is how we’ve always done it” is the catch phrase around the office

This phrase is truly toxic to your organization.  There are always opportunities to improve and enhance operations.  Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work next year.  We must always be forward-thinking.  New technologies emerge, new materials are created, new processes develop every second.  “This is how it’s always been done” puts a halt to any innovation and chips away at team morale.

I’ll tell you a secret – millennial employees hate this phrase.

Contrary to public perceptions, Millennials are efficient, driven and focused. While older generations may have frustrations with Millennials’ demands, what they don’t understand is that those demands are a byproduct of millennials rejecting the norms and processes that have now passed. (Forbes.com)

Millennials crave work that is meaningful and inspiring, where they can specifically correlate their idea with a successful result.  They want to work for a company they believe in, and can trust that the company in turn believes in them.  If they are stopped before even getting the entire idea out of their mouth, you begin chipping away at their drive and motivation for their role, and the company as a whole.  You also start to cloud their vision of where they see the company propelling to in the future. Retailers fail when they stop innovating. They fail their investors, employees, and most of all, their customers.

“We’ve always done it this way” translates to “We’re fine with things staying the same” – even if the company’s failing stores, declining sales, and abysmal employee morale are desperate for change.

“This is how it’s always been done” also shows a lack of desire to take risks – which is dangerous.  Most businesses start because someone took a risk.  Successful businesses are thriving because they continue to take calculated risks.   Don’t lose your company’s entrepreneurial spirit by being unwilling to try things that are unconventional and unexpected, or that will require complex project management to execute.

3) Traveling to source new products or go to trade shows is seen as a chore

I’ve heard buyers complain about not wanting to travel to trade shows.  I’ve also seen executives put so many limitations on travel for buyers, that it reduced them to feeling this way – they got tired of begging to go to shows to the point that they just didn’t care to even go when it finally does happen.

I’ve seen buyers block new item setups and vendor on-boarding because its “too much work”.  Granted, the nuanced systems of large retailers do make it insanely difficult and cumbersome – but if we don’t innovate, we don’t grow sales.  If we don’t grow retail sales, we don’t survive.

chain retailers and boutiques shop magic trade show

MAGIC trade show, Las Vegas, NV

Do you monitor your percentage of new products every collection release vs. percentage of carryover items?

If the percentage of new items you bring in each release continues to decline…there’s a major problem.  Customers visit your store expecting to see new merchandise.  They will only visit a few more times and not see anything new and exciting before you never get their business again.  It will cost you dramatically more to acquire a new customer than to retain your current customers.

If you’re needing to cut costs and not have as many buyers travel to shows, or simply don’t have the bandwidth to source the way you know you need to, hire a Retail Merchandising Consultant to travel to trade shows and manufacturers on your behalf to source products, do trend research, and then present to your buying team the items they recommend to buy.

Take steps today to shift your retail operations from stagnant to energizing.

1. Acknowledge there is a problem, call the problems out specifically and verbally, and chain retailers should make it a company-wide mission to turn it around.

Literally, post it throughout the office.  Make task teams to tackle each issue so there is accountability for accomplishing the company mission.

2. Adapt a “whatever it takes” mindset.

Get comfortable taking risks and accepting failure as a learning opportunity.

3. Survey your entire organization, anonymously.

Get down to the nitty gritty details of what’s driving the stagnation throughout all levels of your organizational hierarchy.

4. Survey your customers in an interactive way.

Make them comfortable giving you open and honest feedback.  You can’t survive without it.

5. Meet one-on-one with associates at different levels of your organization

Meet with them without their managers presentYou must get the full truth.

6. Host an innovation competition to show that you do value new ideas.

The key is to actually incorporate some of the ideas into the business.  You will completely counteract the positive effects of the competition if you don’t.  It would then feel disingenuous and appear that it was simply “for show”.

7. Hire a retail merchandising company to evaluate and provide insight and innovation strategies

Receive invaluable solutions from retail experts – without the blinders and bias of someone inside of your organization.

8. Restructure your teams and move associates around who have been in their same role and department for a substantial amount of time.

Eliminate the toxic phrase “it’s how we’ve always done it” from your organization.

9. Recognize and award associates for both the little and big wins.

Morale goes a long way, especially when the company is volatile.

A big opportunity to capitalize on immediately is incorporating small businesses into your business strategy.

The evolution of the retail industry is being driven by boutiques and emerging brands.

The headlines about large, chain retailers downsizing or going out of business seem to be rampant. However, the small business community is stronger than ever.

If this is the case, why haven’t more large, chain retailers incorporated a localization strategy, connecting them with the small businesses taking up an overwhelming majority of the retail market share?

98% of retail companies are small businesses (NRF.com).

Quite frankly, it is a large time and monetary investment to facilitate this on a big scale, and it is a small risk, as it requires you sacrificing some space in your store for the merchandise, and the man power you will need to bring it to life.  It takes time to teach small businesses about the nuances of working with large, chain retailers, such as EDI compliance, UPC barcodes, labeling, packaging and shipping requirements, payment terms – the list goes on.  You would need to dedicate at least one entire role at your organization to work on your small business strategy (Or my team and I can happily manage this for you!).  However, the new customers and market share you would gain from this strategy I am confident will prove invaluable.pos check out, chain retailers, boutiques

Here are some recent examples of mass or chain retailers who have incorporated small business engagement into their business strategy (which everyone should!):
  • Macy’s program for small businesses, Workshop at Macy’s, is an awesome vehicle they created to give emerging brands a voice and physical presence inside their stores
  • Chain Retailers Williams-Sonoma and West Elm allow local vendors to set up a small pop up space inside their stores
  • Publix has a local sauces and condiment endcap
  • In December 2019, Target partnered with Essence Magazine for a Holiday Marketplace and Entrepreneurship Summit featuring 50+ African-American owned brands

Remove all barriers to retail innovation inside your organization today.  We’ll help you.


DeAnna McIntosh is a trend-setting, results-driven Retail Business Coach and Consultant with 16+ years of experience helping brands drive sales, conversion, productivity, innovation, and engagement (10 of those years being inside Fortune-ranked Retailers). Work directly with her via www.deannamcintosh.com.

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