National Retail Federation Influencer On 6 Things Retail Is Doing Right (And Wrong)

Ask global retail consultant Wendy Liebmann to name the retail industry’s person of the year, and she’ll say it’s the one holding the credit card.

Retail is shifting to a shopper-based model, the way she sees it. And those merchants that cling to the retail-based model of operations and efficiencies not only fail to view their stores from the eyes of their customers; they risk not seeing any customers at all.

“The reality is when people have so many places to shop, retailers cannot afford to just look at themselves in the mirror,” said Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, a global retail consultancy. “They really have to build their proposition around: ‘What does that person who buys from me want from me?’”

She provided a familiar example — the placement of milk at the supermarket. By tradition, it sits in the farthest corner of the store so shoppers are forced to pass through several product-laden aisles. “The last thing the mother wants to do with two kids, one screaming, is walk to the back of the store,” said Liebmann, who was named one of the five retail influencers of 2017 by the National Retail Federation.

Fortunately for that mother, there are other options. She can quickly grab milk at the gas station or drugstore. Translation: Retailers can no longer get away with the model upon which they built their empires.

Those Who Put Shoppers First Win

Headlines about store closings and operational changes make this evident. In many ways, what will separate the retail victors from the others comes down to a few key practices. Liebmann categorizes them under three activities retailers are doing right, and three they are still doing wrong.

3 Things Retailers Are Doing Right Today

  1. Putting away the operational mirror: Retailers that stop examining their own needs and instead view their business through the lens of their shoppers will pull ahead, Liebmann said. They do so by determining how their retail proposition is meeting the needs of the shopper, rather than how it fulfills their own operational needs. In short: They think about the shopper’s life first and foremost, and then apply that to the operational model.
  2. Removing the seams: This means connecting with shoppers in every way shoppers want. The known term is omnichannel, and it requires a great deal of agility. Good retailers cater to the consumer, whether she wants to visit the store, shop online or order first and pick up curbside. “If you don’t allow her to shop at 11 o’clock at night when the kids have gone to bed, that can be the point at which she chooses another merchant,” Liebmann said. “Before there were all these choices, this didn’t matter. The power was in the hands of the retailers and the brands.”
  3. Investing in people: A key to retail success is ensuring the best-suited staff is appointed for each customer touch point — physically, by chat or online. “That personal connection … that’s the hidden juice that makes [retail brands] really successful,” Liebmann said. For example, Costco supports the notion that even in a big-box store with cement floors, the power of personal interactions resonates, from the way the shelves are stocked to checkout.

3 Things Retailers Are (Still) Doing Wrong

  1. Store-ied history: Many retailers still make the mistake of thinking retail is a real estate game, when new stores are no longer necessary for growth. The fact is there are too many stores, as The Limited made clear by recently announcing it would shutter all 250 locations and operate online only. “I remember when we were talking about the ‘Gapification’ of America,” Liebmann said. “All of a sudden it was like the commodification of retail. Obviously digital is a great way to reach people without having to open more real estate.”
  2. Placing efficiency above necessity: While retail does require efficient operations, merchants should not focus solely on being efficient operators. “If all I’m doing is saying my [profit and loss statement] is about putting the merchandise where it is most efficient for me so it can be restocked and rehung, and having so many registers open or so many staff [members] on the floor at some times of the day because it is more efficient to me, then I lose today,” she said. Thanksgiving Day sales are a good example, because they don’t actually address an expressed customer need.
  3. Not breathing humanity into digital: Online interactions should be as human as those that occur in the store. Unfortunately, Liebmann said, some retailers still think they can get digital right with far too few people. But why? Online employees are still expected to answer questions and fulfill orders. She pointed to the model of giving its staff the training and freedom necessary to talk to customers as long as needed. In return, it gets a lot of unconditional loyalty. “You are investing in happiness, but really you are investing in the people you have,” she said.

And when it comes down to what shoppers really want in these post-recession years, it is happiness, Liebmann said.

“We’re seeing this very different kind of yearning — for stability, less stress, greater well-being,” she said. “The competitive environment has changed. It’s not just about the other guy selling things against you; it’s about the other guy selling this set of values.”

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