Chris Brogan, author and power blogger, just posted a blog about a horrible shopping experience titled What Timberland Taught Me About Retail.
There are many lessons in there for independent retailers. I'm going to talk about two of them.
The gist of the story - he saw a Timberland boot advertised on TV and went to a few brick & mortar stores to find it, make his purchase and move on. Unfortunately, the stores were ill-prepared for his visit. Some didn't even know about the product. Others knew the product but didn't have it. Others had it but not in the color or size he needed. Overall, he was frustrated that he could not find anyone with credible information - let alone the actual item - about a product he saw advertised on TV by a major vendor.
This happens all the time in retail. Customer sees product in advertisement, customer wants product, customer goes to store, store doesn't know product, customer goes away frustrated.
But it doesn't have to happen in your store as long as you are proactive about the situation. To do that you have to know the answer to two questions.
The first question is whether or not the company ever gave such information to all the retailers or whether this was an exclusive channel distribution product.
The best retailers know not only the products they sell, but also the products they don't sell (and why). Do you have major vendors that also sell exclusives to big-box stores and Internet sellers? Have you asked them for info on the exclusives you can't get?
If you want to be the product knowledge king, that is information you need. And don't wait for your reps to give it to you. Ask them right up front to get that info. Start with your top vendors and work down until at least you have a working list of products customers might request that you don't have. (And know why you don't have it - by your choice or the vendor's choice.)
If you choose not to carry an item available to you, there is a reason you didn't buy it. Does your staff know that reason?
Just imagine the different type of experience Chris would have had if an associate said, "I know the boot you saw. We chose not to carry it because we like model x better. It has... which means you'll..."
Or if you couldn't get the product... "I know the boot you saw. We don't have that style, it is only available online, but let me show you this one. It is similar because..."
Can you see the difference between either of those scenarios and, "Nope, never heard of 'em,"?
The second question is whether or not the sales staff even cared about knowing that information.
Maybe the information did come down the pike. What did you do with that info? What did your staff do?
This is a training issue.
The best retailers are motivating their staff to know more about the products than the customers. In this day of endless information on the web, it is vital that your staff are constantly researching product info. Yes, the customers are already coming in armed with more info than ever before. But now it is your job to sort that info for them and give it relevance. Tell them why a certain feature is included and what it will do for them (benefits). Let them know why one item costs more than another and help them figure out if the extra expense is worth it.
How much product knowledge training have you offered to your staff? How much time do you spend on teaching the benefits of every product you sell? How much time is devoted to continually updating that info? If you're not doing this, you're letting customers like Chris get away.
Chris Brogan just told a few hundred thousand people not to go shopping in brick & mortars because they were basically clueless. The only way we can combat messages like that is to constantly give our customers the kind of service that would have made Chris a loyal follower.
Can you do that in your business?