surviving the current economic downturn

Strategies for a Changing Retail World

by George Whalin

Anytime there are significant changes in the economy, buying habits, and the consumer marketplace in general, itís important to take a look at what you ARE doing as well as what you are NOT doing to improve, fine-tune, and grow your business.

Rather than being reactionary to tough times, it is far more productive to challenge the status quo, evaluate all the costs associated with doing business in this new environment, and reposition your business for when the economy turns back around.


Much of what is written about our industry [retailing] in newspapers, online, and in trade publications is often baffling. One publication will write what a great month retailers had while another reports how tough things were for retailers that same month. If you were to believe what some in the media are saying these days about the state of retailing and the economy, you might very well become seriously depressed.

The business certainly is challenging, still there are retailers and areas of the country enjoying solid sales increases for the first months of this year. Some retailers simply choose to ignore bad news. And others dwell on the negative, wringing their hands over all the doom and gloom they read and hear. It is far better not to take what the media reports as an accurate accounting of whatís going on in retailing.

If there are fewer customers coming through your doors today than there were last year, itís time to re-evaluate what you and your people are doing. If the average sale in your stores is decreasing, itís time to re-evaluate what you and your people are doing. If profits are down, itís time to re-evaluate what you and your people are doing.

Significant change in the marketplace, the economy, the competitive environment, consumer buying habits, or anything else that negatively impacts your business requires a thorough re-evaluation of the factors that affect and shape these changes. This reevaluation process is an important part of keeping every business vital and successful. And it should be done early on, when the trend first becomes apparent.

Iím always troubled when I hear of retailers going out of business because too often they didnít adjust their strategy when things first started to change. Is the bankruptcy of The Sharper Image much of a surprise to anyone? Theyíve been selling exactly the same merchandise the same way for at least the last five years. While I donít have an inside look at the business, I suspect their problems began to surface several years ago, yet they failed to pay attention and make appropriate adjustments.

Retailers often establish individual sales and store goals based on past yearís numbers. The usual way is to look at those numbers and then establish a goal that is some percentage above the previous sales results. What happens when the marketplace, economy, and consumers change? Is this method of goal setting still valid?

Establishing reachable and realistic goals for sales associates and stores should always be based on the business climate and situation at hand. This takes a more positive approach to the business and provides a motivational environment for associates and managers.

How is it that some retailers thrive and grow in a down economy? How is it that some retailers thrive and grow in the face of fierce competition? The answer to both these questions is that they donít let the economy or competition dictate how they operate their businesses. In tough economic times, these retailers pay attention to what made them successful in the first place. They leverage their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. And they take steps to enhance and improve the relationships with their customers.

In a fiercely competitive environment, savvy retailers take bold steps to distance themselves from the competition. Rather than sticking their heads in the sand, they pay close attention to the marketplace. They continue to identify and take advantage of the opportunities that are always there even in a competitive environment and tough economic times.

Marketing and promotions are a necessary investment in your business regardless of the economy or other outside influences. During the months following 9/11, retailers whose businesses rebounded the fastest modified their approach to marketing but did not cut back or make major reductions in their commitment to marketing and promotions. Such changes included finding media that delivered customers to their doors more cost effectively as well as making an investment in direct-to-the customer marketing such as e-mail, postal mail, and special-events mailers.


Businesses that thrive over a long period of time are committed to a core set of principles. If your pricing strategy and policies have served you well during a good economy, when there is an economic downturn, such as we have today, thereís no reason to abandon this approach.

Recently I had a conversation with a retailer who was thinking about cutting prices on a whole range of merchandise in his stores. He was hoping to attract a lot more customers with these lower prices. I asked him if offering low prices was a fundamental part of his competitive positioning. He said, ďNo, customers usually shop in our stores because of the breadth of our selection and the top-of-the-line brands we offer.Ē I encouraged him to look elsewhere for ways to get more customers into his stores rather than cutting prices.

This is one of those things the best retailers constantly do. When times are good, itís quite easy for expenses to creep up and get out of hand. Rather than cutting costs across the board, hereís a simple way to look at expenses.

Donít spend money on anything that doesnít do at least one of these four things:
A. Get more customers through your doors
B. Better serve your customers
C. Support your associates
D. Directly help grow and improve your business

Every other expense should be carefully scrutinized.

Contrary to the way many business people look at it, I have long believed that cutting jobs or reducing commissions and wages in a challenging economy is counterproductive. It is guaranteed to cause anguish among associates, greatly damaging morale. These kinds of cost savings frequently result in good people leaving to find better, more secure opportunities. Not filling jobs after people voluntarily leave, therefore reducing payrolls by attrition is significantly less-threatening to employees.

It is also important for your people to feel positive about the company, their work, and your customers regardless of the state of the economy. While I donít advocate keeping associates in the dark by avoiding bad news, explain to them that economic and retail slowdowns are a part of doing business.

If there ever is a time when itís important to expend the effort and resources to enhance and build relationships with your customers, this is it! Your storeís most important asset is and always will be customers who know you, have bought from you in the past, and are expected to continue buying from you in the future.

What can you do to nurture, enhance, and continue to build these ongoing relationships?

Every business has some things that are broken. Some are badly broken. Some are just a little broken, but nonetheless broken. Whatís broken in your business?

Do you have a policy or procedure that causes internal difficulties or negatively impacts your customers?

Do you have an employee who is more detrimental than beneficial to the business?

Do you have a merchandise category not producing the revenues or profits you expect?

Do you have a supplier no longer responsive to your needs and expectations?

Do you have a store in a community where the demographics have changed or the area is run down and no longer produces what you expect in the way of sales and profits?

Do you have too much inventory to support todayís sales volume?

With anything thatís broken, the first step is to see if it is fixable and whether it can be fixed cost effectively. If not, eliminate the problem. In my work, I see retailers ignore for far too long things that need to be fixed and can be fixed. If you have some things that are broken, fix them now.

Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission from George Whalinís Retail Management E-Letter.

For a complimentary subscription to George Whalinís Retail Management E-Letter, go to

George Whalinís experience in retail is extensive and first hand. He started his career on the sales floor and worked his way up. In the 1960s, he opened and managed the original Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. He sold instruments to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jackson Five, Grateful Dead, and many more well-known and not-so-well-known musicians. After leaving the musical instrument business he became the senior training manager for a 125-store consumer electronics chain.

In 1987, George founded Retail Management Consultants, which provides business-building services to retail companies and industry suppliers all across North America. He has worked with a wide range of companies in every area of retailing from single-store merchants to leading national chains. His clients also include retail trade associations; buying groups; franchise organizations; and some of the worldís best-known consumer products manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers.

In addition to giving speeches and conducting seminars, George Whalin consults with retailers helping them improve the operation of their businesses. His consulting services include helping retailers with strategic planning issues, marketplace positioning, merchandising and store layouts, developing results-driven marketing and advertising programs, personnel management, and improving store performance. If you need solid, practical, proven insights and ideas to grow and improve your business, call us toll-free at (800) 766-1908.

George Whalinís book RETAIL SUCCESS! is now in its ninth printing. If you havenít purchased a copy yet, what are you waiting for? There are also some very good deals to be had at

To find other books in addition to RETAIL SUCCESS! that George recommends, go to Check it out often; he keeps adding to the list.

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