Affordable Portable Lifestyle Beverage

bottled water

There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere recently following the quotation of Nestle Executive Michael Bellas describing his bottled water as ‘affordable portable lifestyle beverage’.

Whilst I’m something of an intolerant critic of marketing boloney I find myself defending his comments. He has admittedly used that annoying and now meaningless word ‘lifestyle’, but to his credit has managed to describe exactly what his product is; or more accurately how Nestle want us to perceive their product. After all, they’re not actually using it as a tagline.

He has my sympathy… who would want to actually market such a difficult-to-differentiate commodity product such as bottled water?

Its not a candidate for my Improbable Marketing Claims blog.

Taking a break from retailing

After buying Godfrey DIY’s assets out of liquidation earlier this year and forming a new retail business Harvey House Retail I have made the decision to close my two stores in Diss and Stowmarket.

We were unable to achieve our targeted level of turnover in the first 4 months of trading, and as anyone in DIY & garden retail sector knows, it’s the Springtime (with its numerous Bank Holidays) that makes business worthwhile. I did not want to trade beyond the Spring into a period where turnover is likely to be weaker.

It was very difficult to win back customers after closure of Godfrey DIY, and of course many of them changed their shopping habits in the light of the original closure.

The Diss store closes on Sunday 16th June, and Stowmarket on Sunday 14th July.

I’m very fortunate to have been able to put together a very loyal and dedicated crew at each of the stores and at our office, and I am especially sorry for them in not being able to continue the business in the long term. I’m very grateful to them, as well as our loyal customers and suppliers who supported us during this time.

I’m now going to focus exclusively on my retail software business Epos Freedom, which will keep me involved in the retail sector and provide me with an exciting new challenge.

A Temporary Code – a less sinful alternative to Dump Codes

Bar Code Scanner
Over the years I have constantly corrected my staff whenever they use the term ‘dump code’. It’s a commonly used expression in retailing for a stock code or SKU that is used on a till when an item does not scan. I have always corrected them by saying “You mean the Temporary Code”!

Anyone that has worked on a retail checkout will know that situations can often arise where a customer presents an item and there is no conceivable way of getting it to register at the till.

Even when searching by description and with an impatient customer waiting to pay, you just can’t find the right code. This can be for a variety of reasons:

• The barcode simply fell off
• The item is out of its packaging
• The manufacturer changed the barcode and this was not noticed when the goods arrived

The traditional ‘dump code’ is not the way. It’s a quick and dirty solution that has 2 very bad outcomes:
1 – You will immediately create stock integrity problems.
2 – Your staff will quickly discover its easier to put an item through on a dump code because it’s easier than searching for the correct code.

In my original implementation of Epos in my DIY retail business I saw this as a problem area and immediately banished the term ‘dump code’ and introduced the concept of a Temporary Code instead. There was a log by the till which was used to quickly note down what was about to be entered in on the Temp code. It was then the till operator’s responsibility to later find the right item and reverse out whatever had been entered on the Temp Code.

Store managers had to check sales on the Temporary Code each day to ensure that the total was at zero. It’s all part of what’s needed in creating a culture of accuracy in a retail business.

When developing Epos Freedom’s Epos solution I knew from experience that the Temporary Code was a necessary part of any epos system and that we needed to build a more integral solution to the problem.

Using the system’s product narrative facility retailer can make the system prompt the user for further information whenever the Temporary code is used. In implementing it in my retail business we ask till operators to scan the barcode (if there is one) into the narrative field and then enter a brief description of the item. This will ensure that
1 – The correct item is easily traceable
2 – The customer gets an appropriate description on the receipt.

Find out more about Epos Freedom’s recommendations on the use of an Epos Temporary Code.

DIY Retailing and the Housing Market

This week’s news that B&Q have cut 220 head office jobs highlights further the tough market conditions faced by DIY retailers in the UK.

Affordable Housing

Also, some research published last month by the British Retail Consortium highlights the sector’s woes, rightfully identifying a relationship between a lack of mortgage lending and falling sales in home-related goods. Their report blames the high deposit threshold that exists in the current mortgage lending market as a barrier to first time buyers, which will effectively exclude a whole generation from home ownership. Claiming that sales of housing-related retail sales (notable furnishings and homewares) are the worst in over a year, the BRC is highlighting the likely effect on retail jobs.

The reality of this in my opinion is that sales of housing-related goods have been in decline for a period considerably longer than this. If BRCs conclusions about this correlation are correct, then the slowing down of the market will have been in place ever since the banks were hit by crisis back in 2008. Mortgage lending certainly changed from that point in time. Talk to anyone in the DIY or furniture industries and they will tell you that things have not been quite so rosy ever since that time.

Hooray for the decline of ‘Done for You’

The only good news that has come out of the recent recession (and we have been in one of those a long time now however you define it) is that the press are no longer talking about ‘DFY’ (done for you) or claiming that ‘DIY’ stands for ‘don’t involve yourself’. As belts have tightened, much of that ‘done for you’ market would have been seized by the DIY market. Home owners are suddenly rediscovering one of the major reasons why people embark on DIY projects – saving money.

Double Bubble

But if the slowdown in housing-market-driven sales has been offset by the decline in ‘done for you’ projects, then its overall effect would have been quite small for one very important reason. It is the factor that all analysts on the DIY market are overlooking in my opinion: Home movers make a big impact on DIY sales by going through 2 separate spending sprees. Not only do they spend money after they move to the new house, but also before they sell their old house.

Sprucing up your house before sale

What people often forget is that before home owners contemplate marketing their home they spend money in DIY stores because they want to spruce up the old place before they put it on the market. All those House Doctor TV shows were not wasted on the home-movers who would buy tubs of light coloured emulsion in order to ‘maximise their sense of space and light’. They would also enthusiastically attend to minor repairs that had probably not been dealt with for years prior to the decision to sell the house. The ‘before’ expenditure was great business for DIY retailers.

The Good Old Days: Irresponsible Lending

In the good old days of irresponsible lending and free money, homeowners had lots of cash in their pockets to afford the improvements to the new house. Cash-back mortgage offers were commonplace, and of course this was great news for DIY and Furnishings retailers. Bathrooms and kitchens were easy sales to make for retailers as new buyers were eager to rip out all the improvements that the previous owners had made to the house.

Hopefully I’ve highlighted why in my opinion a healthy home-moving market is good for DIY stores and other retailers of goods for the home. We will know that our UK economy is more centred around home ownership than most countries’, and whilst none of us want to see irresponsible lending, we need our housing market to be kick started urgently. Easier access to mortgage finance and affordable housing has to be a priority for the government in my view if we want to get our economy moving again.

Self Scanning – What happened to the social side of shopping?

barcodeI have a passion for retail technology and welcome all developments that increase sales, reduce cost or increase efficiency. I feel that most recent developments in this arena manage to address all or at least some of these goals, and do so in a way that is positive in terms of customer experience. Even if customer service is not improved, at least it should never be compromised by these developments.

Self-scanning however is one development that I am not convinced is always in the interest of the customer. Sure, if it reduces cost by sharing a member of staff among 6 checkouts, then it’s saving the retailer money and that’s probably going to benefit the customer in the long term too. However I’m still not convinced that it pleases all customers all of the time.

Take the elderly for instance. During a bank holiday this year I observed the queue at Marks & Spencer in Lakeside getting tailed back 30 yards because an increasingly larger clan of elderly customers were determined to wait it out for the one and only human operator no matter how long they had to wait. People at the back of the queue are exasperated while the queue moved nowhere and self-scan checkouts were vacant. Somehow, despite the bubbly staff’s best efforts and admirable determination to guide all the reluctant and under-confidents through the sale process, those customers clearly preferred being served by a human being.

Traditional checkout service builds rapport with customers
No doubt much of this reluctance is down to people’s fear of change, fear of computers generally and of course their fear of being made to look stupid. But that’s not all the story. It was obvious to me that many of the people standing in that queue were waiting because they value interaction with a human. Their understanding of shopping over decades of experience is that the encounter should be a social one – not just a user-friendly one.

Even though I am always receptive to using new technology, I too have had a bad experience when using self-scanning. A visit to my local supermarket last week caused me to blow a fuse. The store was very busy and there were no manned checkouts left that didn’t have a huge queue. Even though I was using a trolley and had quite a large number of items to pay for a cheerful lady ushered me towards the self-scan area.

I’m happy to use self-scan when I have a small basketful of goods. In fact it saves me time. I know the technology is not perfect. I accept that there is the odd glitch where somehow the weigher gets out of sync with the transaction total and needs staff attention in order to proceed, but when you have a basket with maybe 30 items you will be waiting for a member of staff to attend maybe 6 times. It was incredibly frustrating and I felt myself getting angry about why it was suddenly my responsibility to reckon up the value of the goods that I was offering to buy. Even this technophile was very unhappy to be using self-scan.

Maybe the store was busier than was anticipated when the staff deployment plan was set. Perhaps they had some staff absenses? I’ll forgive them for this experience. I hope it was not there plan for the bulk of their transactions to be processed by self-scan.

Whilst taking deep breaths to keep my rage under control I remembered an important point about self-scan. A point that I first realised a few years ago when I first heard that B&Q were installing self-scanning. As an independent DIY retailer I saw this as a mistake on their part that would be advantageous to the independents. That point is that customers look forward to rapport with a friendly member of staff. A business that puts a high emphasis on customer service and shopping experience knows the value of interaction between staff and customer. Independent retailers build positive engagement with their customer every day, and if large retailers continue to allow an increasing number of customer interactions to occur with a machine then that differentiates them all the more from the Independents where a warm interaction with a helpful and knowledgeable member of staff is always assured.

Can I see a time when self-scanning will be rolled out beyond the domain of the largest multiples? I don’t think so. In the meantime let’s regard it as a mass staff-training exercise in how to use epos systems. Independent retailers will benefit from that too!

iPhone IOS6 Maps Disappoints

I was excited to see the release of IOS6 this week and eagerly updated one of my iPhones to the new OS.  So far nothing very exciting has struck me about IOS6, however the 3D gimmick on the maps was mildly impressive initially. Apple no longer bundles a Google-powered maps app and is rolling out its own app instead.  In fact the IOS6 upgrade deletes the old Google Maps app.

Delving a little closer however, I discovered that the mapping data in the new app appears to be very out of date.

I tried searching under the name of my retail business and only one of our 3 trading locations appears.  Sure, it’s in the correct town, but that building was demolished 9 years ago to make way for a new Tesco!  We’ve been trading in the new location just as long, and it concerns me about how well Apple have vetted the data that they have been supplied for this new application.  My guess is ‘not at all’!

This is going to be a massive embarrassment for Apple and let’s hope they can resolve it quickly. Apple is a corporation that does not often goof up with a new product.  Judging by online accounts of other users’ experience of the new mapping app there are massive problems worldwide.  This is a monumental  error that must have caused a lot of red faces in Cupertino this week.

I personally rely on the iPhone maps app a lot and I regret upgrading now.  Luckily I have 2 phones and the other is going to stay on IOS5 for a while!

iPhone Google Maps
I looked in the app store for a Google Maps app, but not surprisingly miserable Apple do not provide it in their App Store.  The only solution I can find currently is to run Google maps in the Safari browser, and then accept the ‘Add to Home Screen’ prompt. It’s just a browser app and therefore not the same as the original iPhone Google Maps App, but it’s considerably better than the new Apple one.

It will be interesting to see how this storm is handled by Apple in the days ahead.