Bloodshed and chaos on the high street

Alan Treadgold, head of retail strategy at advertising agency Leo Burnett, talks about the paradox of retailing in 2010.

Alan Treadgold
Alan Treadgold

One of the best pieces of theatre in London over the summer surely has to be ’Welcome to Thebes’ at the National. The Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, caught the essence of the play nicely in his review at the start of its run: “the key question is whether democracy can triumph over a return to bloodshed and chaos”.

Bloodshed and chaos seem to be recurring themes in the summer of 2010. Our former Prime Minister’s much anticipated memoirs spark rather the same thought. So too does life on the UK high street where bloodshed and chaos seem to be very much the order of the day.

The high street remains a sea of red as retailers chaotically chase sales with largely unintelligent and certainly unimaginative promotions. “2 for 1, 50% off everything, limited time only” are hardly the stuff of which marketing dreams are made. Almost nobody likes doing it, of course, but it’s a matter of keeping the cash registers ringing (as they used to say) and figuring out how to repair the damage to the brand when you have the luxury of time, and half way decent sales to dare to think such thoughts.

There is no doubt that these are tough times on the high street. But, it’s in times like these that calm heads and smart thinking is more needed than ever, rather than just instinctively hopping onto the discounting treadmill. You might get off it eventually but, like all of the most alluring fairground rides, you’ll feel dizzy and nauseous for a long time afterwards. That’s if you can stand up at all.

What seems to have been lost by too many in the frantic rush to discount is the answer to what really should be the first, the central and the most important question of all – what does the shopper really want?

Well, certainly they want to be reassured that they’re getting good value. But good value is, of course, a far more multi-dimensional proposition than the lowest price ever – guaranteed.

When we ask shoppers what they want from retail businesses and how well they feel their expectations are being satisfied, the results are insightful, nuanced and rich in possibilities for thoughtful retailers. When we ask them what they want their experience in store to be, words like places of stimulation, learning, experience, interest are all to the fore. And that’s not by any means confined to department stores and specialty retailing.

When we ask them what they want the service experience to be, they often say, ’Well, not what it is now’ and then tell us what they don’t want. What they don’t want is someone saying hello and knowing nothing about the products they want to buy, neither do they want digital kiosks and the like that promise service but deliver frustration and irritation.

What they do want is to be in control of how they shop – they want to be able to shop when they want to and where they want to. In other words, they want the multi-channel reality to match the hype and they want the experience to be seamless.

Shoppers never emerge from a recession as deep and profound as this one with the same characteristics as they went into it. The savings ratio alone is enough to show with great clarity that one of the preferred options for shoppers is to go without, pay down debt and put what they do have left into savings.

So, if they can be persuaded to spend in the retail sector at all and retailers are not satisfying all of their expectations, then price will indeed be decisive. And where do they go to for the lowest prices? Usually online.

So there it is; the paradox of retailing in 2010. Retailers think deep discounting is the answer. Shoppers say it’s only one of the things they want from them and if that’s all they’ve got in their armoury they might get the sale, but they won’t get much profit and they certainly won’t earn their loyalty.

Oh, and the answer to the question of whether democracy can triumph over bloodshed and chaos? Unresolved.

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