Retailers need to work harder to persuade shoppers to start spending again in what is the most difficult time in the sector’s history. That was the message from famed former Bloomingdale’s president and chief exec Marvin Traub at the World Retail Congress today.

Traub, who is credited with turning Bloomingdale’s into a world leading retailer in his 40 year career with the US department store, told the congress that “we live in an atmosphere of ongoing pessimism”, which meant that “our customer is turned off”.

“There has been a transformational shift in consumer sentiment as consumers re-evaluate how and why they spend,” he said, adding “our industry is consumed by the fear and guilt which have gripped shoppers”.

Describing today’s market conditions as “the most difficult and challenging time our industry has ever faced”, Traub said that retailers need to reach out to shoppers by working harder to ensure the products and experiences they offer do more to persuade them to get back into the mindset of spending.

“There is a changed attitude to consumer spending,” he said. “Our job is to create a more positive attitude for consumers and for our stores. We live in a world of exponential change and retailers need to react.”

He said that too often the customer service in stores is poor, which leads to low levels of conversion of store visits to sales. “When I visit stores I am frequently concerned by how poorly some staff interact with customers.”

Traub warned that the luxury market, on which his success with Bloomingdale’s was built, needs a fundamental rethink. “In recent years prices of luxury goods have grown to levels which are unsustainable,” he warned.

He pointed to Matthew Williamson’s tie-up with H&M as an example of how luxury brands could develop more affordable secondary ranges that are accessible to more shoppers.

“At all price points, today more than ever, retailers will need a value proposition,” he said.