· Features

Is company culture the reason retailers are failing?

It may not be the culture of retail organisations but lack of a defined culture that is causing them to close

The pressures on retail outlets are mounting. Rents keep rising. Consumers demand bargains. Online shops offer vast inventories and quick delivery. How is the high street to keep up? All of those external forces don’t change what traditional retailers still have to offer — a person-to-person service that puts merchandise in hand, on demand. And yet, we see shops shuttering.

It may not be the culture of those enterprises but lack of a defined culture that is causing them to close. Think about it. Not every store has thrown in the towel, all at once. Some are better off than others. If your retail business is feeling the crunch, a renewed focus on culture may be the solution.

Particularly when courting fickle consumers, retailers sell their image as much as they sell their goods. In this tight market, the difference between success and failure may be how well-drawn a company’s image is. Businesses that have not actively nurtured their workplace culture turn a fuzzy image to the public. To solidify your company culture, you’ll need to focus on three things:

  • store history
  • corporate values
  • local uniqueness

While many shoppers feel loyalty to big brands and store chains, they choose their destinations. Which store will they shop at today? The focus that retailers are looking for is the local store culture. By identifying what is singular about a particular store, you create a microculture that stands on its own, even if it is part of a larger operation. This is what will set you apart from the virtual — and bricks-and-mortar — competition.

Past is future

Retail workers may come and go, so creating a stable culture takes some care. The one thing that every employee can share is the history of the store location and its founding roots. Giving staff a common story to tell builds trust and teamwork.

Did your company’s founder or visionary have a unique path to the retail world? Maybe there is a rags-to-riches or a genius-idea tale to tell? When you incorporate details from the store’s past into its current culture, you demonstrate to staff that they are part of a continuum of people who made the business what it is today.

You can use past history to name achievement awards, marketing schemes, and insider lingo to bring your people together. If the founder had a thing for fancy motorcars back in the day, you might use an Austin or Jaguar theme for monthly employee awards or sales meetings. No matter what your workforce looks like at a given time, company history won’t change; but it will bring people together.

Values are timeless

So much in the retail world hinges on trends that, for culture to stick, it may be best to settle on features that are timeless. In addition to shared history, shared values are intrinsic to a functional culture. Again, whatever happens seasonally or via changing consumer tastes, a set of core values remains the same.

In businesses that rely on customer satisfaction values such as providing a caring service and being passionate about helping the team succeed, help companies stay viable. When staff are focused on customers and a healthy business, they put those things first, and their good performance pays off. Define your store’s core values and insist that people work with them in mind. When staff live these values, they transcend market trends.

Differences attract

Finally, consider what is truly unique about your store — its founding ethos, its core values, its location, and especially, the individuals who work there. Shoppers are drawn to out-of-the-ordinary things. That’s what creates buzz. When you need to stand out from the crowd, look no further than what is special at your workplace.

So, return to your store history and values. Consider your unique street location. How does it add to your collective image? Survey your staff: what do they have in common? It may be an uncommon shared hobby that will give the group a unique identity. How are they different? This can be even more interesting. Then share the results — with management, with staff, with vendors and with customers.

Culture will not kill traditional retail. Quite the opposite: great culture will save it. Online shopping is convenient, but there’s nothing special about the experience. Let shoppers know you are different. Celebrate the uniqueness of your staff, your store’s past, and the values you want to carry into the future.

Chris Dyer is the author of The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits