Among the jargon that is particular to the Retail industry, are clichés that are almost hard coded into our thinking.
These phrases are used frequently, but have been burning a hole in my thoughts for some time. In the same way that there are habits that serve us well, and habits that undo us, I think some of these habits of thought may be doing more harm than good.
I’ll set the scene with a quick look at the actual meaning of a cliché :
“an idea or expression that has been used too often and is … considered a sign of … old-fashioned thinking” (Cambridge dictionary)
“a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse” (Dictionary.com)
With that in mind, let’s put a few of our old favourites under the microscope to see if they are
a) tried and true (lock them in)
b) old thinking that is holding us back (let them go), or
c) ripe to be reinvented with new purpose (lean into them)
1. Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO)
This expression has its origins in computer science. I’ve deliberately used a dated term like “computer” rather than “tech” because back when it was first used (circa 1950’s - 1960’s) it wasn’t all that interesting outside of IT circles.
But GIGO holds true for most situations, including processes, and is as simple as it sounds – if you use low quality or inaccurate information or inputs (eg poorly managed data), you will get low quality or inaccurate outputs (impacting the value of analysis and forecasting).
With a high dependency on data, Merchandise Planners were early adopters of the IT GIGO principle. The implications of poor data are very well known to us.
The great news is, that with data and tech becoming increasingly more trendy and mainstream, there has been a greater focus on the importance of good data. Even the cool kids (hey Marketing) are talking data these days. A rising tide lifts all ships and I am definitely on board for this one.
2. Stack it high; Watch it fly
Honestly, most often I want to rephrase this to something more accurate like –
Stack it high … Why? Oh, why? or
Stack it high, kiss profit goodbye!
You might have guessed, of the many Retail clichés, this one bothers me a lot.
I acknowledge there are successful businesses based on this model – create a volume based frenzy, or lead the consumer with an authoritative display or marketing message. Category killer strategies dominate the market in this area.
And that’s all well and good, when that is the actual business strategy; the operating model, marketing and ultimately profitability fold into it.
Sadly, however, the “stack it high watch it fly” method is often not based on strategic price, volume or customer focused objectives, and not grounded in a sound understanding of the corresponding volume / price / margin trade-offs.
Simply having the inventory (and lots of it), does not mean you will sell it.
Profit erosion is the inevitable outcome, giving away early margin gains to clean up the long tail, and free up cash for the next stock investment.
3. Spray and Pray
A close cousin of Stack it high, watch it fly, this cliché reflects lack of strategy, process and even discipline.
Whatever the underlying reason – lack of experience, confidence, or leadership and resulting direction; hedging your bets in the Retail game is just not good enough.
Expressed through yet another popular saying, “hope is not a strategy”.
It is critical to know your market, customer, competitors, and product, and to get laser focused on your point of difference. Formulate this into a Strategy, translate it into a Merchandise Financial Plan, apply assortment principles around width and depth, and target ranging appropriately to locations and channels. This will drive optimal inventory investment decisions and profitability.
Competitive forces in a global economy spell the end of vague buying and ranging.
You have to stand for something, or you will become a pushover in the Retail market.
4. Retail is Detail
I support this expression, however, caution is needed.
At one end of the scale it’s often the small things that make all the difference, particularly in execution at the customer facing side of the business. The other extreme is our counter cliché Analysis Paralysis. This is a vortex planners are often accused of falling into; and it’s increasingly hard to avoid with more data becoming accessible every day, and greater interest in data than ever before.
To my mind the key thing here, is to select the appropriate level of detail for the task or situation, and the specific outcome required. What decisions need to be made? What are you solving for? Work back from that to gauge the right level of detail, and how much analysis is enough.
Making decisions is easier when you understand that you’re not looking for the RIGHT answer (if there even is one), but the BEST POSSIBLE answer given the info you have, under these circumstances.
The topics of Precision and Perspective from my blog - 6 P’s of Merchandise Planning – are worth revisiting to help navigate this trade off.
5. Right Product, Right Place, Right Time
This one is often associated with Merchandise Planning specifically. I’ve already put my thoughts into a video animation called “The Right Rights”, (to be unpacked further in a future blog).
I’m a fan of achieving these “Right” results of the right stock, in the right place, at the right time etc. I just think there is work to do in how they are achieved.
While we keep throwing around this expression, without giving attention to whether we are doing the “right things” to get the “right results”, we will potentially keep spinning our wheels, then speed off in a direction that might well not be the “right” one.
6. The Customer is King
Cliche meet Buzz Word!
Just about any current buzz word would fit right in here …
CX, personalisation, free returns, flexible delivery windows, same day delivery, BNPL, and trends driven by social causes that matter to the customer, to name a few.
Of course, it’s not new information. The customer is still the raison d’etre of Retail, and technology is rapidly enabling new ways to show them how much we care.
Increasingly, the trick for Retailers, from my perspective, is to find the balance that is right for them and their longevity. What is their own unique blend of meeting customers’ growing expectations, keeping up with the “Retail Jones’s” in a competitive market, and ensuring that they remain profitable in the process?
All the new initiatives add up and weigh on the cost of doing business. The full impact of these additional costs is not always fully understood, and the true cost / benefit in the long term is still to be determined. Once again, being clear on what the business stands for will help determine which shiny new objects are the best fit.
Lock in and lean in
7. It’s not rocket science
No, it’s not rocket science - neither Retail nor Merchandise Planning. However, most things in life aren’t rocket science, but that doesn’t mean we are getting them right or doing them well. Why? Because knowing and doing are not the same thing. We might know we want the outcomes of a solid Planning process, but what are we doing about it?
There is a risk of over simplifying things – especially Merchandise Planning things. Sequencing, inter-dependencies and dynamic levers underpin most Planning activities. However, it is common, especially when under a time pressure or under resourced (ok, yes, every day in Retail) to fall back on default ways of working or thinking.
Accessing those prized Planning benefits doesn’t come down to rocket science, but it does require acknowledging and facilitating Planning in the business.
Retail is ever changing, but has it really changed that much?
The essence is the same, aspects have evolved, as is the natural course of things.
Now is a good time to take our Retail thinking off auto pilot, inspect our habits and default behavior patterns.
What should we lock in versus let go?
And what should we lean into, to reframe, reinvent or replace old ideas with fresh ones that serve us better?