Wednesday 22 May 2024

’Tis the season to go shopping

This blog first appeared on Malta Today

’The retail business is undoubtedly going through some tough competition at the moment because of the popularity and ease with which people can shop online from foreign websites from the comfort of their home. You click a few buttons, go to your virtual check out counter, type in your Visa number and presto! Your purchase is delivered to your door. And of course, there is the ultimate real attraction: in many cases, prices are considerably cheaper than anything you can find locally. In fact, Fedex and DHL delivery vans can be seen constantly whizzing by throughout our towns and villages, barely able to keep up with the amount of packages they have to deliver.

The obvious question is, how can Maltese shops hope to compete in what seems like such an unfair playing field? Between the costly overheads ranging from rent to salaries to utilities, running a retail business is not easy. Buying in bulk to cut down on the wholesale price is also not an option for many shops, because the island’s size is what it is and they simply cannot stock large quantities in every single size in every single colour.

Having said that, there are ways in which the local market could and should compete.

Put prices on your website: The point of having a website is to inform customers of what you have available, and that includes the crucial information regarding prices. There seems to be some mysterious reluctance against this practice and in fact, when using social media to promote their business, many tell potential clients asking for prices to “send a PM” rather than posting the price online. Why all the secrecy? If a competitor wants to undercut your prices they will find a way to do so, but in the meantime you are simply exasperating customers. On the other hand, having prices at one’s fingertips will allow a customer to make up their mind and zero in on where they want to spend their money.

Tell your staff to smile: Part of the shopping experience is the relaxation and enjoyment offered by some retail therapy. Nothing beats the effect of leisurely browsing through a shop as you ponder what to buy. But that experience will be soured if you are met by dour staff who would clearly rather be a million miles away. I don’t know whether it is worse to be treated with blank-faced contempt as you are told “we have nothing in your size” or to simply be ignored as a salesgirl spills intimate details of her love life while gabbing on her phone. Finding good staff is very difficult, but definitely one of the criteria I would insist on is a smiling face and pleasant manners. Everything else can be taught but there is no cure for being a sourpuss.

After sales service is important too: We have read enough horror stories on the Facebook page Are you being served? to know that how a company handles even a difficult customer when things go wrong can make or break a reputation. It is a skill which requires a certain type of personalty and not everyone can do it. But when it’s done right, the value of that company’s reputation goes up so much that you cannot buy that type of good publicity. But when it’s handled badly, oh boy. The damage can be so bad it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. Customers have become more demanding, it’s true, and there are those who are downright unreasonable, but in the long run it’s better to grit your teeth and get rid of them politely and as quickly as possible then engaging in a long drawn-out slanging match on a public forum.

And finally, how about online shopping and delivery from local shops? I know, I know, this is not feasible for every retailer, but it is clear that between the convenience, saving time, and avoiding the nightmare of traffic and the further nightmare of finding parking, more and more prefer to shop from their living room. There are some who are already offering this service and it is something to consider especially for big brands. In an ever-changing market where Maltese shops are having to compete not just among themselves but against every international online shopping website, it is either adapt or flounder. Of course, most shops will tell you that nothing beats foot traffic, but then again not everyone who goes into a shop in reality represents a sale, and many walk out empty-handed, whereas those who go online are definitely there to purchase something.

It is something to think about.