Arising out of recent discourses that Stabroek Business has had with businesses in the retail sector we have gleaned a distinct sense of anxiety about the trading outlook for 2009. Apart from what one businessman described as a “VAT hangover” from which consumer liquidity has simply not recovered, there is the concern that remittances – more than 70 per cent of which reportedly goes into retail spending – will decline even further as the impact of the recession in the United States begins to bite deeper in countries that depend heavily on those financial inflows.

In sum the prevailing view appears to be that this year will see a reduced level of spending on retail goods and, by extension, a heightened level of competition among retailers to attract customers. This view is decidedly stronger among traders in the clothing, furniture. electronic goods and home appliance sub-sectors, their argument being  that food and utility payments will now absorb an even greater percentage of what is likely to be a reduced volume of consumer liquidity.

We found too that while most of the larger retail enterprises are moving in the direction of more aggressive marketing and customer service initiatives which they hope will enhance customer appeal, several small and micro businesses that lack the capacity to pursue those options have simply decided to adopt a wait and see approach.

During a recent interview with Stabroek Business, Courts Country Manager Lester Alvis outlined a raft of marketing, public relations and customer service initiatives which he said were designed to enhance the store’s customer appeal during what he believes will be a tight spending period.

If Courts’ response to the anticipated tough year for trading is probably not unique in the commercial sector – one assumes that other large companies have developed similar strategies to respond to the anticipated difficulties in the period ahead – the point made by Mr. Alvis about the need to focus on enhanced consumer service levels during a period of anticipated reduced spending is worth dwelling on in the context of the wider commercial sector.

Many of the smaller high street traders with whom we spoke appear not to recognize the nexus between quality of service and customer appeal. The truth is that our retail sector – taken as a whole – does not have a tradition of attention to customer service.  The quality of service among counter staff and store assistants among the high street traders has grown worse, over time, a reflection both of serious deficiencies at the employee entry level, in the first place and of the indifference among proprietors to  providing even the most basic training in the rudiments of customer service for their employees.

One would  expect, for example, that organizations like the Private Sector Commission and the various Chambers of Commerce across the country would be paying more attention to these issues and, moreover, that they  would have the capacity to offer this kind of basic training from which the smaller  businesses can benefit en masse. It may also be worth the while to determine whether the Institute of Private Enterprise Development (IPED) and formal training institutions like The Business School can design such courses to meet the needs of the retail sector.

On the other hand if the owners of those businesses see no nexus between quality of service and levels of patronage there is really little that can be done to persuade them to the contrary. Except, of course, if the tightness of the competition for customer patronage this year offers the edge to the businesses with the superior level of customer care then there is more than good reason for the high street traders to get their act together.

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