Five Important Questions Most Retailers Cannot Answer

Managing the retail business in 2016 has never been anything but challenging, but with the mountain of business intelligence data available today it has becoming equally challenging to determine which metrics are the most effective tools in that process.

question markWhen the retail business is growing, the important, ‘bankable’ metrics such as sales, profits, cash flow, labor and transportation efficiencies are reassuring numeric markers of success. Despite retailers continued reliance on these numbers, none of these stalwart metrics are sufficiently deep reaching to accurately provide a true diagnostic of the health of the business in today’s complex environment.

As a veteran of many “Monday Morning Retail Meetings”, I know personally that when sales are tracking the wrong way, it is usually theories and conjecture that serve as explanations, not empirical measurement. Also, many times a downward trend comes as a surprise, when in fact if the right diagnostic measurements were being monitored, pre-emptive steps could have been already in motion.

Encouragingly enough there are an entire new genre of metrics that have emerged over the past decade that can serve as ‘intelligent indicators’ of the health and vitality of the business. Use of these metrics begins with the retailer “asking the right questions” about their business these questions are of particular relevance to the bricks and mortar retailers, who have made significant investments in stores, inventory, and logistical support.

1. Are My Departments and Categories Getting Sufficient Exposure to Shoppers?
Whenever retailers look at shopper tracking studies in their stores, the number of key departments and categories that see only a scant few of the in-store shoppers typically astounds them. This is particularly true in larger stores (over 50,000 square feet). Simply put, you cannot sell something that no one sees. In fact, many of the highest margin categories in the store are typically visited by fewer than 10% of the shopper base. There are a variety of remedies for increasing shopper exposure, but it begins with understanding the lost opportunities of low traffic areas in the store.

If category sales are lower than is acceptable, before you make adjustments to pricing, promotions, and presentation in the store, measure the categories shopper exposure rate. If fewer than 20% of shoppers are exposed to the category, the fastest way to sales increases is to either move the category or more likely create secondary placements of the category in higher traffic areas.

2. To Optimize Exposure, Are My Categories and Products Positioned Optimally in My Stores?
Ask any retailer why they position various departments and categories where they do and you will hear anything from “that’s where they have always been placed’ to ‘perishable departments are more efficiently operated if they are on the perimeter of the store near back room work areas’, to that’s where they need to be for theft and security monitoring. While all of these reasons are viable, none speak to optimize the sales and profit of the department. None speak to the sequential order that makes the most sense to the shopper, which will enable the shopper to more quickly find the items they want and move on to the next purchase.

As a group, shoppers develop a cadence and flow in your stores that can be leveraged with the creation of selling events along the ‘dominant path’ that carries the majority of traffic in most all stores. If there are 10 product categories that are driving a disproportionate amount of business, insure they are position to be intercepted by shoppers on or near the ‘dominant path’ of the store.

3. Are We Selling the Right Mix of Items in Our Stores?
There are essential questions that should be asked continually in order to understand the efficacy of a retailer’s product offerings.

i) Of the top selling 20% of items in my stores, which items are growing in sales, flat, or shrinking?
ii) Of the bottom selling 20% of Items in my stores, which items are relevant and valuable to the overall mix and which should be discontinued?

The rationale for carrying items in larger, inventory intensive stores often falls to moneys or deals that are offered by manufacturers as incentives for shelf placement. As shoppers become more accustom to on-line purchasing, where filters and past purchases help shoppers make choices, slow moving items that clutter the shelves and make the shopper’s purchase decision more difficult are a luxury of the past.

Understand the ‘contribution of sales’ of each sku that is slotted on the shelf and determine a survival threshold for each product, one that dictates a certain level of relevance to your shoppers if it is to remain in the mix.

4. Are Shoppers Able to Efficiently Navigate Our Stores?

Most retailers have no clue as to how long the average shopping trip in their stores last or how fast the shopper buys during that trip. Both are important metrics and both will likely surprise the retailer upon their discovery. Length of trip is vitally important in that shoppers have a finite amount of time to spend in stores. Efforts by retailers to entice shoppers to linger or move into areas of the store that are not relevant to their current mission, typically do more to frustrate the shopper, than to place additional items in their basket.

Within the short, finite amount of time, the faster the shopper is finding their needs and making purchases, the bigger their basket size will ultimately be. The notion of helping shoppers ‘expedite’ their shopping trip is not only counterintuitive to most retailers, but flies in the face of the long accepted belief that the longer shoppers linger in the store, the more they will buy.

Measure, benchmark and strive to improve shopper ‘buying rates’ in stores. Shopping trip length, while it will vary upon the physical size of the store, is a clear indicator of how efficient your stores are for you shoppers. Do not be alarmed if shopper centric merchandising practices reduce the shopper’s time in the store. As long as they are buying faster and building basket size in less time, shorter trip lengths are a positive indication that you are connecting with your shoppers on their terms, which is how it should be. The faster the shopper buys, the more they will buy on any given trip. If shoppers are spending at slower rate, lower basket sizes will result. Set benchmarks on shopper time and spending rates and work to steadily improve through smarter, shopper-centric merchandising.

5. Are We Relying Too Much on Discounts and Promotions?

As a new store manager, a wise man once said to me, “Mark, anyone can give it away, but only a good merchant knows how to sell at a good profit”. Certainly deals and promotions can be very powerful tools, especially for retailers that are positioned as a ‘high-low’ merchant. However, too much of the business being sold on promotion can be a harbinger for bigger problems to come. First and foremost, too many or too frequent promotions serve to dilute the impact of any single event. Further and more critical to the life of the business, it could be an indication that the everyday pricing is out of sync with the shopper’s expectations and the competitive environment.

It is difficult for anyone to make grandiose generalizations about pricing and promotion to specific retailers, as their effectiveness is driven in large part to localized variables such as demographics, shopper income levels, and competitive environments. However, on the whole, retailers discount too much and rely too heavily on promotions to drive their business.

To my knowledge, know one in the retail industry has developed a sure fire method of measuring the amount of wasted ‘markdown’ a retailer investment in a merchandising program. Most retailers would tell you that they intuitively know that what the retailer can measure is how much of their business is sold on promotion/discount versus full margin. If I were a CEO or CMO I would asked this question every week with the knowledge that good merchandising, good operations and good service can work in tandem to reduce the reliance on deals to drive more profitable sales.

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