I had a conversation with a friend who is a veteran in the corporate training space. And I mentioned the R word i.e recession.
Her voice had a hint of panic, ” Are you feeling a recession?”. I quickly reassured her that I wasn’t talking about India but of Europe.
However, my thoughts went back to the end of 2008. It is no secret that training was badly hit during the downturn. Some training professionals have described it as the bottom just fell out. In the months on November / December of 2008 most organizations were shocked, stunned and bewildered- What was happening? How could this happen? Hope can we cope?
HR professionals were despondent and asked “why do you want to meet me? My training budget have been slashed / frozen etc. I am thinking of retrenching and you are talking training.”
These were the months when brands such as Aldo, Mango etc were on up to 70% off for Diwali, Christmas, New Year Sales and yet malls were deserted. Established brands such as Bata felt the heat. Loosing 2 weeks sales in a year is not a joke. Consumers many of them in their twenties who had been thronging the malls earlier had their first experience of an economic downturn. Suddenly their parent’s values of savings, spending less than you earn were not old fashioned anymore. Everyone was wary- would I be the next to loose my job?
But then came the New year and people became used to the new reality. Mr. Kishore Biyani (Big Bazaar) talked about austerity measures “Garab se kaho hum kanjoos hain” and asked for focus on solutions to buoy sales.
The million dollar question then was, “what is the road ahead?”.
Retailers and brands have tried the discounts route. But has that strategy paid? And how long can you adopt that strategy?
The fact is that the Indian consumer has become more discretionary (buying less) , discerning (choosy) and demanding (bargain hunting). Will they ever go back to their pre downturn psyche? I doubt that.
Then, what options does a retailer have?
Probably the only viable option is to increase the shopper experience. Retailers need to sell to the customer instead of just making merchandise available.
To illustrate, I will recount a customer transaction I overheard at Debenhams , in Delhi where I witnessed a customer in anguish telling a salesperson that, “ It is because of people like you that Debenhams is deserted at this time of the day.” My experience was not all that pleasant either – Not only did I have to wait 20 minutes before the salesperson could gift wrap a photo frame and a child’s mackintosh. But I also could not buy a swimming costume for my daughter because though it was on racks, it was not entered on the system. On top of this the salesperson asked if I have change. I couldn’t help wryly remarking – “Is their anything else I can do to help you, sir? “ He thought it was funny.
Where in India do you see the brand experience that Schmitt’s book Experiential Marketing talks of?
Dhruv Bogra , business head – retail, VF Arvind Brands in an article wrote: “ For retailers “brand” consists of both the brand image of the products being sold and the brand presentation of the store itself. A retail brand is the design and presentation of a building. It is whether you can deliver the product in a timely and consistent way. It is the company policy on returns and exchanges, whether the store has parking, comfort level of the store when consumers shop, employees attitude, how they dress and smile, how they assist when consumers browse, their knowledge of the products, and how they say “thank you” in a way that makes consumers feel wanted and appreciated. For retailers, the store experience is the brand. Because the customer is there, in the store, the reaction to any slippage in any brand attribute is immediate.”
And many organizations are realizing that training its manpower is perhaps the only way to ensure this brand experience and that is a change that is perceptible in the marketplace. Will share some anecdotes in another post.
My only concern is that when for decades business has been done with a “caveat emptor” (Latin for “Let the buyer beware”) attitude it will take time for organizations to change their culture of customer service.
Changing attitudes towards customer service will take time and resources but the organizations / brands that do it will reap the rewards.
Contributed by Lovely Kumar, Chief projects, Larks Learning