Dialogue With Customers Yields Success

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What is your most valuable asset?

It's an important question, particularly in retailing. I believe that your most important asset is your relationship with your customer.

Not your customer - but the relationship you have with that customer.

What's the difference? It's the difference between success and failure.

It is critical to understand exactly what your customers are looking for when shopping at your stores. And the only way you can find that out is to establish a direct relationship with the customers - not a monologue, but a dialogue.

It's hard to sell anyone anything anymore. Too many choices, too many shopping options. It all adds up to a volatile sales environment.

How do you find out what your customers want?

To begin with, the transactional data you already possess is a gold mine. The data tells you a great deal about individual customers - when they shop, which departments they shop in and what they buy.

Using that information can help you target customers and send them relevant information that addresses their needs.

Are they single?

Are they married?

Are they young?

Are they older?

Are they buying for themselves?

For business?

For gifts?

It's all in the data. And if you analyze the data correctly, you can begin a true dialogue with your customers that helps you shape your product offerings to meet their individual needs.

Let's look at two examples of retail operations that had a keen understanding of their customers' wants and needs, well beyond the shopping experience, and how they used that knowledge to help build a stronger franchise and a more durable identity.

In the 1960s, the Bloomingdale's flagship store in New York transformed itself into more than a shopping option. It became a destination where hip, with-it New Yorkers would go and spend a Saturday afternoon just looking around and shopping.

It was more than just the wide selection and more than just the designer names. It was the excitement, the buzz, the celebrities shopping right alongside you and it was the constant theme-linked shows. Through a well-coordinated effort, and a constant monitoring of its target audience, Bloomingdale's became more than a shopping outlet. It became a fashion trendsetter.

It was fashionable to be seen browsing the first floor on Saturdays. It was hip to be seen with a big Bloomie's bag. People would meet there and dine there. And they would flash their Bloomie's credit cards as though they were gold American Express cards.

Bloomingdale's understood its customers well. The customers were not just looking for fashion. They were looking for excitement, the next big thing, stimulation and a social environment. They were looking for an experience that made a statement about who they were and what they had achieved.

Of course, not every retail outlet can become a Bloomie's. But everyone can be more attuned to the needs of customers beyond the products they buy. We can make our locations into destinations - places customers come for the experience as much as the shopping.

Once you analyze the wants and needs of your core customer, you can establish an environment that meets those needs.

In the 1970s, Macy's found itself in a less- than-desirable position. Its store was in the wrong part of town, and its offerings were considered less than trendy compared with its East Side counterparts. It was selling many of the same designers and products as its better-located competition. In this case, it was packaging that was missing.

A new management team re-engineered the entire basement of Macy's and even renamed it The Cellar. It improved the lighting, made the environment more upbeat and cheerful and upgraded the product offerings. And because the surrounding neighborhood offered little in the way of dining, Macy's even opened

a branch of a famous East Side restaurant in its West Side location. Customers could have a great, novel experience without ever leaving the building.

Macy's made its location a desirable destination. Store executives examined their customers' needs, looked at their competitors' successful efforts and retooled the operation. They even upgraded their product line on the upper floors. It took time and effort. But by taking an honest look at their customers, and themselves, they were able to reshape their image and increase traffic and sales.

Once you've made the decision, analyzed the data and made the necessary adjustments, there is one more important step. You need to make sure all your communications, all your touch points with customer - advertising, promotions, events - all reflect your commitment to your customer. You need to personalize the information and make it more relevant.

Once you've "tailored" your product to meet your customers needs, you must be certain that your communications are tailored as well. If you do that, you can turn customers into ambassadors and advocates, which is the most powerful selling tool available to any retailer. And that's why your relationship with each individual customer is your most important asset. Meet their shopping needs, and you've gone part of the way. Meet their needs for a larger, more personal experience (in whatever way you find appropriate), and you've gone the extra mile.

Jerry Shapiro is executive creative director at RTCdirect, Washington.

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