Playing It Safe In Retail Is Boring [And A Bad Idea]

Playing It Safe In Retail Is Boring [And A Bad Idea]

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Retail organizations today have difficulty carving out a unique, unforgettable, inspired, and remarkable experiences for what they do in people’s minds. Most of them focus on the lowest common denominator and go after cheap textiles or other product to sell at compelling prices. They anonymize themselves to the point where the name of the store is incidental and their service is incidental. As a customer, you feel like you got a garment from “someplace” at a steal and that’s “good enough”.

Retail organizations value propositions today are easily interchangable with their competition and few would notice any difference. They all market more to the masses and give little attention to the special needs of the individuals [lacking any true customer experience initiatives to deliver greatness]. The majority of retailers compete by trying to offer lower prices than their competition because that is, now, their perceived brand promise and value.  The lucky retailers are driven by the “trend” of what they do or what celebrities have publicly shopped at and wear their brand. As retailers like Kitson can attest to – that reliance is a flash in the pan that quickly extinguishes.

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Retail has become largely generic but great leadership can truly make a store, a district, a region, a company stand out. Winning doesn’t come from being the same as others or being “good enough”. It doesn’t result from imitating best practices or sticking with what’s worked in the past. Look at Abercrombie & Fitch, for example – they are boldly making changes the market expects them to as they work to reestablish relevance and resonate with consumers again and the consumers are responding. They understand, though it took a while, that what got you here won’t get you there.

I talk and write, a lot, about reinvention and evolving because it is so necessary to maintain relevance. To keep up with the daily changes and customer expectations of our business. Just read this article from the New York Post, “Number Of Store Closures Already Set To Outpace Last Year” from March 19th, 2016 – it’s scary. Failure to acknowledge our opportunity and update our professional leadership brand/style will render us irrelevant in our industry and leave us behind pretty quickly. Now is not the time to play it safe…everyone is doing it and it’s clearly not working.

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True success in the face of competition and an unpredictable environment, as we are experiencing now, comes from providing value/product that people want coupled with surprise, innovation, noticeability, outrageousness and, finally, results. You, as a retail leader, can inspire teams to deliver a great customer experience in the field, you can inspire your team to bring ideas to the business to create value and compel people to listen because your message is different and intriguing. You can inspire customers to see the specialty of your team’s brand through delivering a memorable and exciting experience that they want to talk about, share, and revisit.

Those of you who are reading this on LinkedIn will, likely, understand…look at the sheer number of self-indulgent and provocative “selfies” that have filled this ‘professional site’, the exhausting proliferation of wacky political propaganda being shared. Say what you will about the content [sometimes it is downright cringe-worthy] – but those posts have a TON of exposure and interaction. In this case – even the negative is good because it shares the intended message with each like and comment, regardless of the sharer’s opinion. I think most of these people that post these are truly brilliant marketers because they are challenging the status quo and they are fearless about it and that is something to be admired [regardless of the message].

Retail needs more of that. To clarify…not more self-indulgent selfies or kooky political pandering – they are becoming a little “white noisy” – but retail leadership needs to be creative, they need to have a passion and fire inside of them about being different – about being better. Retail leaders need to be fearless, intoxicating, and exciting. Here are some thoughts for shaking off “boring, traditional, and a ride the line” leadership brand and go for great:

  • Refuse to follow the path most traveled. And don’t invite anyone onto your team that thinks it’s okay to be “good enough”;
  • Go in the opposite direction that you have been going in while playing it safe – take risks, make mistakes, we have that luxury in our industry;
  • Do something outrageous that draws surprised gasps from observers and a pang of jealous admiration from your colleagues who are playing it safe. Share your reason, share your story, and share your success when you produce “great” – to inspire others to take risks;
  • Go Big or Go Home – when you need to implement change or inspire your team – go for magnitude change rather than try to achieve modest incremental steps of progress. Communicate clearly and energize and engage your team around the plan and sell the benefit of going big;
  • Invite criticism – when you stop playing it safe and go for greatness you will have more detractors than promoters.  However, people will recognize the impact your having – your results will cement this, offer to share your success and help your colleagues – they will come around;
  • Study the most successful people – they often do not play it safe. They make waves and they make mistakes but they also make tremendous progress and have a huge impact on their business. Everyone should want to be someone who not only makes a difference but someone who is truly unique and fierce.

Risk-taking and being unique is scary but it is totally worth it if your hope is to make a difference and bring value to your team, your performance, and your company.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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2 thoughts on “Playing It Safe In Retail Is Boring [And A Bad Idea]

  1. Thank you for the great insight you laid out in this article. I have held numerous positions of responsibility in Retail over the last twenty years. A year ago I came aboard to the current Furniture retailer I work for with the understanding that they were attempting to make some much needed cultural and innovative shifts.
    My question is, can an organization of approximately 480 employees that in the midst of reinventing it’s image, leadership, procedures and culture succeed whilst struggling to retain a new workforce, utilizing the same systems and methods succeed to achieve these goals without an outside entity managing the process or at least advising?

    1. Thank you, Nare for the comment! To answer your question, from my perspective, yes, all of those things can be achieved with the right leadership and if things are being reinvented to update processes and culture and not to fix a broken culture. If the culture is even a little challenged, that is a direct result of poor executive leadership and less-than-stellar mid- to senior-level leadership. In that case, it’s tough to reinvent a business and watch over all of the people in the business that need to be communicated to and kept up-to-date on why the changes that are being implemented are being implemented. In these cases, it is helpful to have an unbiased and culture-focused person in place to keep everyone knowledgeable and to communicate – objectively – what is happening in the business and to keep their finger on the pulse of what everyone needs and the listen to feedback they provide. I’ve seen both happen successfully based on why the changes/updates are occurring but I have never seen internal people successfully reinvent a culture when they were the ones who contributed to it’s distress, successfully.

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