Here I am in early September, the summer seemingly behind us, hurtling towards autumn and slightly down-hearted after a number of conversations with clients, candidates and general retail friends. Things are tough, sales are slow, margins are thinning, Sterling is dropping, do I dare say it – Brexit, no consumer confidence, general uncertainty, etc, etc.

Boris, May, Corbyn, it is just all so depressing.  House of Fraser, Homebase … do I need to go on?

However (and there is always a however as you can’t keep an optimist down), we are quietly forgetting that unemployment is at an all-time low, the fact that retail businesses are disappearing, means that there is more left of the pie for the remaining retailers to go after (not many tears shed over the demise of Homebase at the Kingfisher head office, I bet..) and the change in weather will drive fashion sales – woolly jumper anyone?

Although I absolutely recognise that retail is a tough gig right now, I cannot help but believe that retailers are making it tougher for themselves than necessary. And this, dear friends, brings me to one of my favourite subjects – Customer Experience.

By and large, we cannot control the economy, the weather or the political climate. However we can, to quite a large extent, control how customers are made to feel when we have them as a captive audience in our shops.

That of course is down to shop fit, visual merchandising, availability and most importantly the shop floor staff.
I found it fascinating that straight after the demise of House of Fraser and before it was bought out of administration, I was in Debenhams and had a shocking experience of disinterest, apathy, name it what you will.

One of their main competitors had gone bust and this person clearly did not see it as a threat that she too might lose her job if Debenhams’ fortunes aren’t turned around, nor did she see it as an opportunity to win a customer.

And although I was frustrated at the time, actually it wasn’t her fault. And here we come to the question: nurture or nature.

Had she been recruited because of her extrovert personality, her ability to connect with people from all walks of life, her desire to please and make people feel good, then she would have made a sale that day or in the very least, leave a lasting impression of great customer service.

Had she been recruited as a ‘blank canvas’, someone we’ll train and develop to within an inch of her life and teach her to eat her kpi’s for breakfast and understand that the shop floor is a stage, so you have to put on your best sales act, then she would have made a sale and possible leave an impression of good service.

The fact that she clearly did not fall into the first category, means that something had gone wrong for this person in the second category…

So, as always, the recruitment question is, do we hold out for the individuals with the right mentality, personality and outlook? Or do we recruit and then train and develop (and hope for the best)?

Of course skill sets can be trained, however my view regarding attitude and general soft skills is that you can’t train what God didn’t put in.

Is there any retail organisation out there that is consciously paying a higher hourly rate in order to attract just the individuals that they feel will enhance their customer experience? Is any business trying this in an isolated manner, ie in a store designated to be a centre of excellence?

Would the additional payroll costs be negated by additional sales, more loyal customers, higher frequency or a real lasting relationship with the customer?

I can’t answer those questions, however I would love to hear from those that can.

Of course, I would like to think that the situation described above was one isolated incident, however there are so many shops where you enter enthusiastically and leave disappointed.

I genuinely believe that those retail businesses that deliver exceptional customer experience, are those who will survive.

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