I joked in a previous column that some of us might visit our shops in December, hear Wham’s Last Christmas and genuinely wonder whether it might be. I rather wish I hadn’t now.
Given recent trading, I’m sure you will all have been through a new round of budget re-forecasts, which I imagine could have played out like Bruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right. I have visions of optimistic sales directors as the “dolly dealers” presenting their year-to-go sales forecast equivalent of the three of hearts, only for the boardroom, lead by the realists in finance, to collectively shout “lower, lower!”.
“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations” is a favourite quote of mine from a writer called Charles Swindoll. It certainly feels like retail is in an impossible situation right now, but I am also sure that great opportunities lie therein – opportunities that we won’t truly see until the mist of desperate discounting lifts.
For all of us, margin is the one thing that can insulate our business from declining sales and with sterling falling so dramatically against both dollar and euro, the next intake of new stock will hit this hard. If we give more of it away chasing market share from customers who are happy to switch brands in search of a bargain, then in the medium to long term we could lose both. Margin will be greatly reduced and the customer you bought on the cheap may well have switched back.
So if we cling to margin, we have to justify it and to do that we must deliver value and outstanding service to our customers. You would think that by cutting staff hours to a minimum, customer service would diminish. On the contrary; you may find that the staff-hours-to-customer ratio may actually increase. Less busy, more time to serve. If inventory is high, there should be fewer excuses for out-of-stocks, so there is a potential upside in conversion.
If this is a time to cherish our core customers, maybe it is time to ensure our brand communication is a dialogue, and more empathetic and personal too. Let’s also not lose sight of the fact we are still the UK’s number one leisure activity, so let’s make the experience even more enjoyable. This should be less about cutting prices and more about making friends, cementing existing relationships and having fun.
From our customers’ perspective, it is not quite the spirit of the Blitz, but I do get a sense that in this current climate customers are happy to reward companies that they like, trust and admire – and that they would like to still be here in a year’s time – with their custom.
We can try and blame the bankers but, just as it has always been, it is our customers who will ultimately decide our fate. So to each and every one of them, we must be like Brucie and constantly show and tell them: “You’re my favourite.”
Jacqueline Gold is chief executive of Ann Summers.