People power

Richard Ash, founder and chief executive of Green Room Retail Design, talks about how retail brands are still failing themselves when they don’t view staff as part of the brand.

Richard Ash
Richard Ash

As a worshipper of most things emerging from California, I was extremely keen to get my hands on an iPad when it launched a few weeks ago. I resisted the urge to camp out over night outside my local Apple Store (I like the Bullring, but you have to draw the line somewhere…), but there was never any doubt that I would make the inevitable purchase anywhere other than at an Apple Store.

This was in spite of the device being readily available far more conveniently (for me at least) online or at the PC World just up the road from my home, but it’s an effort worth making as far as I am concerned because Apple has created a retail experience many in the industry look at with envy.

I regard a trip to the Apple Store is an essential part of the transactional experience and, judging by the numbers in store when I visited, thousands of other disciples feel the same.

They have a product line up to die for (let’s face it, Steve Jobs could sell all the iPads and iPhones he can make out of the back of a rusty Transit van if he so chose), but the company’s retail presence only serves to further cement our affection for the brand.

The reason for this is threefold: first, the brand and product, as mentioned, is desirable and in demand; second, the retail environment has been beautifully crafted to promote, inform and excite in a manner utterly appropriate to the brand; and third, the staff you find there are exemplary ambassadors of the brand. They love the product and their enthusiasm and knowledge shines brightly.

So often, it’s this latter factor that’s missing in our daily retail encounters.

I think it only fair to acknowledge that not all brands have the fanatical following of Apple, who I’m sure it could staff its stores with passionate and knowledgeable people for free if it wanted to. It’s not a unique scenario but equally, its not one enjoyed by the majority of retailers. But that doesn’t mean staffing excellence is out of reach.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s people that make or break a retail experience. Sure, the product on offer and the retail environment itself can provide the backdrop and potential, but it’s the people that invariably seal the deal.

Look at the annual league tables of who’s performing well in the retail world, and there’s a common theme – it’s those staffed by great people. John Lewis, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Asda: all retailers renowned for their focus on their people.

And conversely, we can all cite examples of stores we’d love to like but just can’t bring ourselves to because of the surly staff who – sometimes almost physically – stand in the way of us having a great experience.

I believe it’s incumbent on all of us involved in retail to invest in and cultivate environments and cultures that allow the people working there to flourish.

We’re increasingly engaging with clients to employ our retail design expertise to the training environment with a view to better influencing the influencers. For example, we recently delivered a training suite for a mobile phone company that immerses store sales staff in a brand experience representative of the retail environment in which they work and the product set they are charged with selling.

Where previously, staff received their features and benefits training in little better than a motorway hotel meeting room (or worse, back of store, amongst the boxes and grubby mugs), now they are dipped from head to toe in a bespoke learning environment until they enthusiastically bleed passion for the products they sell. The training is still sensitive to the practical demands of time and resource, but it’s shifted to a scenario that is hands on, motivational, relevant, appropriate for those attending… and fun. It’s a stark contrast to the tedious war of attrition typical of staff training in this sector.

And there should be no surprise to learn that the modest investment has paid for itself many times over: with the sales force enthused, strangely enough their ability to sell is greatly enhanced. And because staff are happier and performing better, retention rates have improved too. It’s a win-win-win scenario for the worker, the mobile phone manufacturer and the retailer.

To be honest, it almost seems perverse that rather than being the industry norm, this is a scenario I feel needs sharing. Yet, after more years working at the sharp end of retail than I care to mention, I feel qualified to say that the general attitude towards staff investment is invariably lacking in this country. And as the knock on effect is a poor retail customer experience that serves only to drag down a sector already wounded from the nation’s financial predicament, that’s a crime.

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