October 3, 2020

Things change. But not the basics.


Rod McDonald I wrote in this column a few years ago about how I learned many retail lessons as a high school student working at The Bay. It was the latter part of the ’60s, and service was available not only at the independents, but at large department stores as well. It didn’t matter if it was Eaton’s, Simpsons or The Bay, you received good service from experienced salespeople. I bought my first cookware set from Simpsons in 1973, and a woman in her 50s waited on me. She asked me what I cooked, how often and what style of cooking I preferred. Then she selected the set I needed. I left the store satisfied that my needs had been met.

Over at The Bay, you could not purchase a pair of men’s underwear or socks without someone looking after you. Usually a ‘mom’ type salesperson. It was almost impossible to not be waited on by staff members who knew what they were talking about. Dedicated staff ensured the shopping experience was enjoyable. Today, this type of service has almost totally disappeared.  

What stimulated me to rehash these stories of long ago, when service was mandatory, was a recent experience. My wife needed some new underwear. Being a considerate husband, I volunteered to accompany her on this expedition. Most husbands will understand. The Bay was our first place to visit. We arrived in the lingerie department and I was instructed to keep myself busy at The Dollar Store for the next 40 minutes or so. The Dollar Store being at the other end of the mall. According to her, she needed no assistance in selecting those intimate items. Or at least, no assistance from me.

Forty-some minutes later I returned to The Bay. My wife was disgruntled. The entire time she was in the department, not a single staff member approached her. She required assistance. She was perplexed by the lack of service, and left frustrated, with no purchase. We walked slowly out of the store, looking for staff, any staff. All we could see were the salespeople in their white lab coats at the cosmetic counters and the cashiers at the sales terminal. Not a single salesperson. The Bay, as you may know, is on the verge of going out of business. No doubt, their position would be that they cannot afford staff. On the other side of the coin are the customers who leave without making a purchase, frustrated by the lack of  assistance. The chicken and the egg story slides right into this slot.

Regina’s online group that started up in the last year, YQR Plant Junkies, is dedicated to plant fanatics. Rest assured, I do not use the word fanatic in a hyperbolic fashion. These members are true enthusiasts of all things green. I am a member, occasionally posting, but mostly I read the comments. It is interesting to read of the frustration that I wrote about in the above paragraphs. Recent postings have commented about taking a long time to find someone to talk to at Home Depot’s Garden Centre, only to discover they didn’t know anything. Stories abound about the lack of service at box stores, and if we are honest, the chain stores’ definition of service is laughable. If you do receive decent service at a box store, rest assured it was by accident, not by design.

AT THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM, this Plant Junkie group posts many glowing reviews of independents that provide outstanding service. It is often noted how helpful staff and owners are at certain places. It also mentions that, at many of the independents, a customer can find those often difficult-to-locate plants or plant care products. I have read member comments about how they view a visit to a well run, independent shop as a treat and a pleasurable experience. They drop a couple of hundred bucks and rave about what a great time they had! They view the experience as having been fun, exciting and worthwhile.

All of this only confirms what we already know but needs reaffirming:  We cannot compete on price but we can slay the dragon with quality, selection and service.  Perhaps slaying the dragon might be a bit dramatic, but we can most certainly find our spot in the retail mix.

I measure success as thriving, not surviving. When I speak with an independent and he or she tells me they made enough to pay their bills and to keep the doors open for another year, my eyebrows raise. I wonder, and for good reason, are they planning to be around in five- and 10-years’ time? Success is not about getting by, it is about improving your operation, expanding your knowledge base, your selection and yes, increasing sales and the bottom line. Too often, we worry about what the competition is doing, ignoring the things that make us better. We need to ask ourselves: Are we being the best we can or are we coasting?

There are those independents who have made the commitment to being the best they can. According to social media reports, their customers are appreciative and spending money at these places.

In these uncertain and difficult times I have seen line ups at my local deli, as customers wait to purchase specialty items available at this one place. The same applies to my long-time friends at Dutch Cycle, whose bike shop has a line-up out the door, of customers wanting to service their bicycles or to purchase a new one. The bikes are not cheap at Dutch Cycle. You can buy one for $500, but you can also pay $6,000, as they go after the dedicated cyclist market. Those dedicated cyclists bring in their not-so-dedicated friends who still need sales and service, though not to the extended degree. The one thing Dutch Cycle learned from their old-school father, was that no matter how much the customer wants to spend, treat them with respect and meet their needs. Following that dictum explains the line-up.

My local, successful deli has competition from every grocery store in the city. If you want cheese, bread and olives, you can purchase those items from Superstore and for a good price. If you want cheese, bread and olives that taste incredible, then you shop at The Italian Star.

The bike shop has lots of low-end competition from Canadian Tire who sells bikes for around half of what you pay at the independents. You already know this; they are not the same bikes. Dutch has minimum standards for what they sell, and they do not reach down to the depths of the chain store. Not only are their bikes of better quality, but they also fit the bike to your weight and height. Both of these businesses thrive in good times and not-so-good times. Survival is not a word they use in their business plan and neither should you.

There are no great secrets to running a successful garden centre (or other retail operation). The recipe is known, and all that is required is the diligence and perseverance to follow through. Engage those open secrets to stay on the road to success.  
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.