Local Retail Needs To Step Up

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This does not happen online. This does not happen with major retailers.

Recently, I was recommended to a local retailer for some home furnishings. After visiting the store (and ordering some stuff), I was quite taken with the personal service, and it always feels good to support a local merchant. I bought a few more pieces that I had not anticipated on this trip. Soon after, I found myself looking online at the prices of the products I had just purchased. No, I didn’t do this beforehand (or while in the store), because I was taken by the conversation with the small business owner, and felt that there was a good rapport. Imagine my shock, when I discovered that the same products were available for 50% less online than what I had paid (some of the products I purchased were even cheaper).

Pricing matters.

I have no issue paying a premium for local merchants and services. I like helping to bolster and support the local small business economy. A local business’ success works for everybody. BUT… don’t insult me… or my intelligence. When I called the shop owner on this pricing gap, I was able to extract (after a lot of bumbling and stammering on their part) that what I saw online must be a different manufacturer with a far less superior quality. Fine. I asked for the manufacturer’s name… they would not provide it. A few days later, I was walking by the store and noticed boxes outside with the proper manufacturer on it. I went back online and – sure enough – it was the same manufacturer. 

Another phone call… and the lies started to flow.

Trust is lost when lies enter the conversation and relationship. The back peddling continued until the offer of a ten percent discount was offered. Not even close to the available price online (from multiple sources). I decided that the order would be cancelled. “That will take us about ten business days to process,” the merchant declared. At that same moment in time, I had bought and returned something online from a large home furnishing brand in the States, without question. In fact, once the parcel was placed at UPS for return, I noticed that my credit card was refunded the money. The brand didn’t even wait to get the goods (or check them upon return). Flawless. Painless. Customer-centric (great work, Restoration Hardware!).

The bar has been set.

Local retailers don’t have to like the effect that big box stores or online merchants have had on their general business, but price transparency and ease of return are, simply, table stakes in business today. The sad reality, is that the bar is not set considerably higher or too complex for these businesses to operate within. Before pricing a product, local merchants simply have to ensure that they’re within a reasonable pricing structure to the online world. While establishing retail policies of the store, make it as easy as possible for the customer to do business with you as they operate online. Ten days to process/think about whether or not the retailer is going to accept a return is no longer acceptable. And, yes, we all recognize that the price to operate and run a physical store is a different dynamic to the online channels, but this is the net new reality.

We have been exposed.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for local retailers (and brands, in general) is that consumers have been exposed to these new experiences and expectations. Pricing, ratings, return policies and more are a couple of swipes away. It’s easy. Giving consumers the feeling that they may have been taken on the price they paid, or making it laborious to return something are both old school retail tactics that die hard in this digital environment. That genie is not going back into the bottle with online shopping. Adapt or die? Accept or die? Embrace or die? Sure. On the other hand, why not make the offer better than buying it online? And, if you can’t do that, maybe it’s time to consider another line of business? Harsh? That’s not the intent. The true intent is this: do you know the baseline expectations of your consumers in a world where much of what happens in the purchase cycle is available for all to see and experience?

This isn’t just the story of a small local retailer who is challenged by our new world. Many brand leaders are currently suffering along by living in the past as well. This should feel like opportunity… and not defeat.