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May 30, 2010

Retail Margin 101: Grow It or Kill It

by Marge Laney

by Marge Laney

The word on everyone’s lips today in retail is margin.  From the gurus on Wall Street, to the management teams steering the ships of big retail, everyone’s preaching, ‘Enough with the cuts already!’  ‘We need top line growth and margin improvement!’  So why is it when I walk my local mall and enter almost any store I’m greeted with “Hi, welcome to fill-in-the-blank! Check out our buy-one, get-one stuff and our 40% off whatever!” Or my favorite, “…we just did a whole bunch of new markdowns, come check them out!” 

I’m not speaking to discount self service retail here.  They know who they are and they pay for their service model with margin.  I’m talking about the retailers who preach that they do put customer service first and attempt to provide personal service to their customers in the name of adding value which translates to higher margin. 

I did a training recently and had the opportunity to ask the sales associates what margin was.  Not one of them had a clue, but they all were aware that it was something that they needed to improve.  For those of you who don’t know, margin is profit. Markdown’s destroy profit and eat up payroll that could and should be allocated to customer facing time to sell merchandise when it is fresh instead of sucking up that payroll on processing markdowns.  Sure, margin can be boosted by cutting SG&A (read payroll), but retail is pretty much done with that.  They’ve rung all the available fat out of their P&L for the most part.

The funny thing is that everybody in these organizations knows that the customer should come first and that the sales associate time is better spent connecting with the customer and selling.  So why don’t they just do it?  There are a million reasons why most don’t and they all make sense to somebody, but a couple of retailers are doing it and reaping the benefits.  One of them is J. Crew. Mickey Drexler,  CEO of J. Crew, is quoted in a recent WWD Article  and gives insight into their formula for success; “We are and will continue to be focused on our mission — to innovate in our design, style, quality and customer service and to invest in our business, our associates and our customers for the long term…”  J. Crew posted strong first quarter results with net income and gross margin up significantly across the board.  J. Crew associates are true brand advocates; they connect with their customers personally to provide service and sell, they don’t task.

I challenge all retailers who preach margin growth to put their in-store customer service strategies and their payroll allocation where their mouth is and provide the customer with the service and experience they advertise.  Select your front-line associates based on their ability not their availability, train them to be the knowledgeable brand advocates that deliver your message to every customer, give them standards and goals and monitor them, and offer tangible rewards for success.  And above all let them do the job you hired them to do – deliver the brand promise personally, and hire other non-sales people to process shipments, execute plan-o-grams, clean, and process a lot fewer markdowns.

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