Secrets of Successful Shopkeepers


They say that the customer is always right. I guess whoever first said that was a customer. So they must be right.

I have worked in retailing for the best part of 30 years. Rather inevitably I guess as I come from a line of retailers. Although in those days they were called shopkeepers. My mum’s uncle owned a prestigious and successful greengrocers shop in Workington, resplendent with displays of colourful fruit and vegetables. Her mother took up the mantle working in a grocers shop in Manchester.

My dad’s mother meanwhile worked on Oldham’s famous Tommyfield market, braving all weathers to sell clothes from an outside wooden stall. His sister worked in a fishmongers before running a pub in Oldham and finally a sweetshop in Blackpool. As small children we were allowed a free choice from the penny tray of mojos and blackjacks.

So it was in my blood oranges that I should find myself aged 16 combining the paternal market gene with the maternal grocery gen and selling fruit and vegetables on a market stall in Stalybridge in frozen December. But evolution is evolution, and the following Christmas my mum upgraded me to a warmer wines and spirits shop in Chadderton. This is where I discovered that the size of the tip is proportional to the size of the transaction, not the quality of the service. I could yield a tenner for wheeling out 3 boxes of alcohol to a bloke’s Merc and loading them into his boot without breaking them.

Also in my youth, I was found serving in charity chops and book shops and most memorably selling football programmes for the infamous Oldham Athletic. Here, I discovered two great truths about sales. Firstly that commission drives sales. I earned something like 1p for selling 10 programmes. I also gained free entry to the ground after 15 minutes. As my team rarely scored in the first 15 minutes, and in fact rarely scored at all if they could help it, there was little risk of missing the action. So the retail lever for me was not about finishing in time, but on maximising volume. If I had been paid a fixed wage, I would have had no incentive to sell. For a while I was a sole-trader with a 100% stake in my own business.

I also discovered the truth about location, location, location. This was the only “retail lever” I could pull. The price was inflexibly printed on the programme, and nobody had invented 3 for 2s or BOGOFs. I had no shop to turn into a retail theatre. The only marketing I could do was to shout “PROGRAMME” as loud as I could without embarrassing myself. So it really was all about location and standing in the best place in comparison to the competition.

Unlike greengrocers and sweet shop owners, a programme seller is entirely mobile. Only ice-cream and burger vans enjoy this luxury. The New Forest is legendary for its famous ice-cream wars, where territories are defended with a determination and menace which makes the Middle East look like a party game. And so it is with programme sellers. Like dogs in the neighbourhood, each one of us found his or her own territory. We knew where each other were, but never acknowledged each other and rarely approached each other.

The prime location is obviously to be the upstream of the greatest flow of people. After a few weeks I found the ideal place on a corner where the lads off the 405 bus from town disembarked and merged with the walkers from residential area behind the ground. I could not sell the programmes fast enough, particularly when the punter needed change. Another retail lesson – get people through the till quickly and minimise queuing.

My success was short-lived. Being the market leader is always the most dangerous place to be. Competition losing business takes no prisoners. He was older than me and angry. His dad was undoubtedly bigger than my dad. I obediently moved.

After graduating, some would say I entered a career in IT. I prefer to say I entered a career in shopkeeping. As a trainee programmer for John Lewis, I soon was developing a system for the Waitrose fruit and vegetable warehouse, buoyed my by expertise as a market seller. Since when I have been responsible for endless IT systems in Boots, Lloydspharmacy and now Specsavers. I can wax lyrical about the stock replenishment algorithms, price elasticity, sales promotions, range, market share and e-Commerce. All of which are enabled by IT. 

But the key to success of a retailer is something IT can do nothing about, customer service predicated on the fact that the customer really is always right. 

Boots were suffering significant “shrinkage” in the 1990s. Customers were neglecting to pay. We investigated electronic tagging, more highly paid store detectives and CCTV. Boots decided to run wires through the handles of their radio cassette players and other electrical items with handles, so that an alarm went off if a customer tried to remove it. Fine fragrances were placed behind locked glass doors where you could not smell them with a notice to “please ask for assistance”. Sales of course plummeted; way below the level which could be justified by reduction in stealing. The customer simply will not buy goods they cannot handle and smell. And we resent the assumption that we are dishonest – even when we are.

Our local petrol station in a prime location instituted a system whereby you had to pay for your petrol before filling up, because people had been driving away with full tanks without completing their side of the bargain. This was the day I took my custom elsewhere. Including my wine and chocolate custom. Their loss.

Rule #1, the customer is always right. Rule #2, when the customer is wrong, or even dishonest, please refer to Rule #1.

This is a long game and a shopkeeper may lose out on individual transactions. But customer loyalty and reputation is everything and it is earned by first-class customer service.

Nobody likes to walk into Currys or Burtons and be immediately pounced on by over-enthusiastic sales assistants who are clearly is more interested in your money and their commission than fulfilling your need – which is primarily to be left alone to browse. “Are you alright, there” they ask “Yes thanks, how are you?” I reply. My wife just ignores them.

On the other hand I get disproportionately frustrated when we can’t find the plasters in Boots and all the shelf-stackers have mysteriously vanished. We want assistance when we need it, and not when we don’t. Yet so many shops apparently miss this obvious point. And worse of all is Sharon chatting to Tony at the pharmacy counter when you have been stood there with your (insert mildly embarrassing personal care product) for what feels like an hour, as if you are invisible.

I have been fortunate to work for two famous retailers who have got this mainly right. Customer service first, everything else second. We will pay significantly to be served by knowledgeable and helpful staff who treat us with respect and honesty. Of course price, range and quality of goods are all important. But you tend to find that the retailers who are strong on customer service get these right as well. Waitrose not only has infinitely better customer service than Asda; its Indian ready-meals are in a different league, and well worth the 60p extra.

Just as a hotel owner should always stay in their own hotel, a shop owner should always be a customer in their own shop. And here retail is detail. What is the experience? Is the shop tidy and attractive? Is the merchandise accessible? (only this week I was squeezing between cages of tissues to try to look at a rack of greetings cards in Tesco). Are the shelves stocked? Is there a good choice of product? Are the signs helpful? Does the layout of the shop match follow the order of the customer’s shopping list?  And most of all, are the staff focussed above everything on responding to questions and providing polite and friendly customer service?

The customer really is always right. And if a shopkeeper remembers this golden rule, the customer will return time after time and tell their friends all about it. I rather hope that my ancestral shopkeepers got this right. They were each successful shopkeepers in their own way. So I suspect they did.

  2 comments for “Secrets of Successful Shopkeepers

  1. Paul H
    September 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Very good piece, but I would argue with you on certain aspects, especially in the lower end of the shopping spectrum. We shop at Aldi, not for the service, or the layout BUT for the excellent value for money. We do have a choice, but that choice is factored by our budget . The same is true of our shopping in other areas, like DIY, Clothes, Electrical goods, etc. Also don’t you think that the Internet has an effect upon our view of retailers, and retailing?

    • September 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

      Of course price is important, and for some critical. But if retailers in the same sector compete aggressively on price they just end up in a “race to the bottom” which erodes profit and quality – and damages suppliers (e.g the £1 chicken and cheap milk). Customer service is comparatively cheap to differentiate on (unless you are having to hire more staff)..

      The internet provides the optimum location ! (the shop is in your home). Works well for “purchasing” (commodity purchases for a specific item) less well for shopping (browsing, touching, smelling, trying on). And has an expensive supply chain (delivering to millions of houses is far more expensive than say 300 shops). More widely the internet has driven price transparency – which is always good for consumers.

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