New In-Store Challenges: How labor shortages and supply chain issues require different thinking in store - Medallion Retail
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New In-Store Challenges: How labor shortages and supply chain issues require different thinking in store

POSTED ON: 11/01/21

A great start

It seems like such a short while ago when we were beginning to see the light of day on this pandemic-challenged economy. Shops reopening, retailers and other businesses optimistic that consumers would soon return with enthusiasm to their physical environments, quickly picking up where they had left off. After over a year of consumers being continuously tethered to the digital, at-home experience, many on both sides were hopeful that perhaps and thank goodness at long last, they/we were on the pathway to some sort of normalcy in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that joyful optimism would be short-lived.  

And now this…

Just when we thought it was safe to go back in store (which it was and still is) and get back to business, a whole new series of challenges confronted us. None more debilitating to any industry trying to just get back on its feet, this one cut many off at the knees—labor shortages at levels beyond which we have not experienced in recent memory.

Many news reports claim that there 10 million jobs presently open in the United States, even though there remain 8.4 million people unemployed. And while one might think this is pandemic caused, not all of it is related.

In a article entitled: Why the U.S. Labor Shortage Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon, the author writes “The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t cause the labor shortage, but it certainly amplified the tightened labor market and accelerated the future state of work, particularly for blue-collar workers. Other factors that contribute to labor challenges include the increase in e-commerce, demographic shifts, evolution of the gig economy, lack of access to and high cost of childcare, and pandemic relief and unemployment benefits.”

This might last a while.

So, while yes, some of what’s happening here could be linked to Covid, there are many other factors at play. And we might very well be witnessing a cultural shift in the choices of those who typically fill blue-collar roles in retail. “While a lot has been written about the overall tightness of the labor market, much less has been written about severe labor shortages of blue-collar and manual services workers—the exact opposite of the trends in recent decades,” Gad Levanon, vice president of labor markets at The Conference Board, told FOX Business.

And as you can imagine, the impact to physical retail has been palatable. From stocking shelves to checkout, retailers are struggling to keep store operations going. And many are turning to automation, robotics, high tech to address the growing lack of human hands to manage.

But what about consumers who need help in store? Even before all of these challenges, helping shoppers in store with their questions, or providing important information to support and drive purchasing, finding in-store staff to help was like playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?”. If you could find someone to ask a question of, they didn’t work in that department. If you were lucky enough to find someone who worked in the department you were in, then likely you had three patrons ahead of you with questions (probably even more complicated than yours).

Personal one-on-one interactions with store staff have for years been a problem. With many retailers seeking to manage store operational budgets and payroll being the number one most controllable expense—floor staff were multi-tasked to support a myriad of tasks—customer service wasn’t one of them.

Now, with the challenges of trying to find labor period, the shopper has truly been abandoned to their finding their own way in store or saying screw it, I’ll just go on Amazon and I can get all my questions answered and I won’t need to leave the comfort of my home.

But….I want to leave my home. I want to go to the store. I need to get out! Isn’t there some way to have my questions answered while experiencing new products? Isn’t there a way that I can be entertained, inspired, and helped all at the same time while I’m physically in store?

In June of 2020, we wrote about how in-store signage and display was more important than ever before. But at the time, the focus was mainly on the reentry into physical retail and the value of welcoming back shoppers, surprising them, while also helping to perhaps reacclimate them to a changed in-store experience.

Little did we know that the value of in-store signage and display would once again reign as your best silent salesperson now, maybe the only “salesperson” out on the floor.

How do I count the ways?

In our June 2020 blog—5 Reasons In-Store Signage Is More Important Than Ever, we listed these 5 reasons:

  1. Help the Shopper Find What They’re Looking for But Also What They Didn’t Know They Needed.
  2. Demonstrate What Packaging Doesn’t
  3. Promote Both in Store and Online
  4. Quickly Pivot Your Offerings
  5. Surprise. Delight. Entertain. Reward.

None of the five reasons that we sited about in-store signage in 2020 have really changed. They are all still relevant, but now maybe even more so.

As staff shortages leave shoppers completely on their own in store and supply chain problems have retailers scrambling to quickly pivot and redirect shoppers to substitute products, each one of these five reasons now take on new meaning, and certainly new interpretations.

New challenges, new approaches

Help the shopper find what they’re looking for, but also what they didn’t know they needed. And the power of suggestion is an amazing thing.

I’m sure that somewhere out there in history, there was some mega-wise retail pioneer who approached the idea of “when opportunity knocks” by adopting the mindset regarding shoppers in store: when you have ‘em, when they’re in front of you, make the most of it. Because once they’re gone, there’s no guarantee they’ll be back.

I’ll throw a quote out at you that maybe didn’t make the textbooks, but it was one that I lived by in the travel retail industry—“Give them what they came in for, but sell them what they didn’t.” Travelers are stressed. Always have been. Get them in for that Pepto-Bismol they forgot at home and you have an opportunity to sell them a neck pillow, ear plugs or good book for the flight.

Suggestion is a powerful thing. But what it really comes down to is timing. Delivering that messaging at the point of need and contemplation. Following your shopper’s path in store, figuring out what could be their next direction as they move from the aspirin aisle to housewares. And maybe at that point your shopper is getting a little peckish—in the mood for a nosh, but gotta have a look at those lovely plates first—and then there it is….a sign with a great suggestion: “Imagine how lovely our specialty raviolis will look plated on these dishes when friends are over” with a photo of one of those dishes, with the raviolis and sauce topped with sprinkled cheese—which, oh by the way, can be found down Aisle 5 in the freezer section.

One of the retail geniuses who completely embraces the psychology of shopper behavior is Ikea. Their understanding of their shopper’s pathway to purchase and deploying that understanding in creative and sales driving messaging throughout all touch points has made them a legacy leader in home and lifestyle furnishing (which includes food).

In an article on CNBC  about Ikea’s success in selling DIY bookcases and meatballs they said…“We’ve always called the meatballs ‘the best sofa-seller,’” Gerd Diewald, the former head of Ikea’s food operations in the U.S., told Fast Company in 2017. “Because it’s hard to do business with hungry customers. When you feed them, they stay longer, they can talk about their [potential] purchases, and they make a decision without leaving the store. That was the thinking right at the beginning.”

Here, Ikea isn’t even waiting for you to get in store. They’re selling couches (and meatballs) even before you get in the door. And you know, even before the shopping begins, you the shopper will be receptive to hanging out longer (and open to buying couches) when you know these yummies are awaiting you at the end of your journey.

Seize the opportunity to suggest through signage and display—but make those suggestions at the point of where your shopper is in their journey. Where they may be the most willing to accept that suggestion—and perhaps where they had not contemplated, they might be.

Demonstrate What Packaging Doesn’t and Tell Me Why I Should Care

Pretty packaging, well is pretty packaging. And anyway, who am I to knock design? Being in a creative agency, that’s kinda like biting the hand that feeds you. However, pretty designs on a package aren’t going to adequately explain the value to the consumer. It’s not going to tell you what you will derive out of giving this product a try—and why it should be important…why you need. Why you should buy.

Sure, “it will lift, firm, make you look years younger all within a week”. These certainly are all value-added offerings, but when placed on the back of a package that’s 2½ inches wide by 5 inches long; in print that would challenge even a superhero’s vision, all those marketing dollars are lost.

What your shopper says is “Hey, I saw your TV commercial. I saw your ad in a magazine. I’m at the store. I’m ready to buy. I’m looking for your product, but is it the one I saw on television?  You have four other like products all in on the same display shelf. I’m confused. And I don’t really want to pull out my smartphone magnifier to read the back of every product’s packaging.”

Now would be the time and the right place to have signage on the display that aptly articulates each of the product’s attributes. Firming is to the left, brightening is to the right. The middle bay combines both. Why is it that vitamin stores can do this, and typical retail does not?

And then there’s why I need.

Well, I know why I need. I look in the mirror every day. But why do I really need? To look better? To feel better? To be my best when I’m on a never-ending day of Zoom calls? That’s talking to me—in a way that doesn’t call me less attractive. But—addresses the “me” in a different way.

The other day I came across this ad on the product’s website l and couldn’t stop laughing at its cheekiness.

I know, I know, we have to keep in mind that in-store signage gets viewed by all age demographics and I’m not suggesting that such provocative approaches would be appropriate for a typical store campaign. But it gives thought about giving the shopper the reason to stop, ponder and find themselves saying, “Hey, that’s me! I gotta get sh*t done!!”

Be imaginative in your store signage copy. Talk to the shopper, not at them. And find that sweet spot that connects them to that product that perhaps isn’t so obvious, but certainly very human-forward. And making them laugh at the same time? Priceless.

Promote Both In Store and Online. You may have to in order to not lose the sale.

The promotion of online purchasing while in store is important now more than ever. Supply chain issues translate to tighter local inventory. And while the product might not be available in store, it could be online. Rather than leaving a space open on the shelf, a simple call out that online availability might be an option.  Make this an easy pop-up box that fits in the shelf—along with a scannable QR code that leads to your website. And when store staff are stocking the shelves and note missing product, they can insert this in the empty space.

Even better, along with that scan of the QR code to your website, give the shopper the ability to sign up for your loyalty program and perhaps an offer of a coupon on their present or next purchase.

Online and in-store promotion play an integral part in your marketing plan. It’s not one over the other. It’s not either or. It’s a happy marriage that finds your customer at various stages of their interaction with you, offering options that adapt to where they are in their pathway to purchase.

Quickly Pivot Your Offerings. You may have to.

What happens when you have designated space in store planned for promotion of 53” widescreen TVs and then suddenly that big shipment gets held up in port? What do you do? And how quickly can you suddenly switch gears?

Having a plan B these days is not just a good thing, it could truly mean your survival. But what do you do when it’s at the last minute and you’re tasked with redoing a large space in your store? Well for one thing, your signage and display needs to be as nimble as you are. That is, how quickly can your signage be transformed, display unit’s move, and your customers informed?

Signage that can change messaging quickly doesn’t need to be digitally produced. But it does need to be thought out. Planning for floor transformation should be built into your operating budget. In most cases it probably is. But this is a different kind of transformation. Not one that’s viewed on your monthly promotions calendar, but something rather that happens spontaneously. And preparation is key.

Sometimes driven by many factors far and above your control (like supply chain issues or even the weather) and sometimes just simply due to customer demands, your signage and display needs to work with your plan B, and be easy for your store staff to move, stage and construct quickly.

Think generic signage that can be transformed with a topper that calls out a promotion.

Let’s use weather as the driver. It’s Saturday and although the morning was sunny, now it’s raining out.

Your display of umbrellas can be moved to the front of the store, past the decompression zone (the first few feet of store that customers enter through). Customers see the display coming in. And they may see it as they head to checkout. Generic sign reads “Umbrellas”—and the topper on that sign reads, “May We Interest You In…?”

And using the widescreen televisions as another example…Yes, it’s a bummer that the shipment didn’t come in, but you could be ready to offer suggestions. Remember those?

Maybe it wasn’t the entire selection of televisions. Maybe it was just the Samsung TVs. And now you have to promote other brands. Not necessarily a bad thing and if done right (and quickly), you might be able to convince your shopper to consider alternatives.

In a recent 2021 Consumer Research article by Oracle, their finding showed one in three consumers (34%) agree that out-of-stock items constitute a bad shopping experience, and 39% say the same for unexpected delays in receipt of goods or services. When an item is out of stock, just 8% of shoppers say they’d work with a store associate to ship it from another store.

But the good news is, one third would opt for an alternate product at the same store (33%).

And rather than just accepting the loss of the sale, why not have signage at the ready that can relay alternatives. Maybe signage that depicts product comparisons so that shoppers can do their own review of alternatives available. Maybe offers to buy online. Maybe raincheck offers for product that was on special promotion.

Any way you look at it, there’s a lot of movement on the sales floor and you don’t have enough hands to address it with your customers on a one-on-one exchange, much less have the ability to quickly explain or provide the full list of alternatives there are to be considered. Thinking ahead for these scenarios and planning for them is critical because they’re going to happen. And unfortunately, they’re going to happen a lot more. Your signage and displays are your silent but highly effective salespeople, and you should be thinking of their use in new and much more immediately transformable ways.

Surprise. Delight. Entertain. Reward. Because if any time was right to do this, now is the time.

Nowhere in recent history has retail been more challenged and the shopper more full of worry and anxiety about the cost and availability of goods. Consumers walked out of the pandemic only to be met by another pandemic of sorts, empty shelves, and higher prices.

The Oracle report mentioned earlier on ends with a somewhat ominous conclusion:

“At an inflection point, what’s ahead remains unknown, but the curvature of change continues. The coming holiday season presents a stress test for retail supply chains already under pressure and a recovering retail sector. “

“At the same time, a tight labor market puts stores and warehouses at war for talent. A world in recovery from a global pandemic, a decade’s worth of disruption compressed into a year and a half, and a looming return to life as we know it makes uncertainty the only thing certain. No one can truly see what’s to come, but those with the agility and insight to react quickly and move swiftly in response to change will be ahead of the curve.”

But while that conclusion seems to scream doom and gloom, out of conflict comes innovation. Workarounds are found. Discoveries are made. And we progress. And some will thrive.

Surprising, delighting and entertaining your shopper in store has never been more important than now. They want to escape. They want to momentarily be removed from the Zoom calls, their extended days (if anybody thought their remote working arrangement meant a shorter workday, trust me, it didn’t. It elongated it). They want to be spoken to and not at. And yes, they want to laugh.

While many retailers will not have staff walking the aisles happily juggling balls and singing a Bruno Mars song (and really, they shouldn’t), it doesn’t mean that your signage and display can’t serve as the entertainment, the platform for discovery, the prize in the Cracker-Jack box.

Humor is the best medicine for many. And people enjoy a good laugh. Your in-store voice is just as important as your online one. And if your messaging is one that brings the consumers shoulders down from their ears a bit, you’ll get them in the mood. And if anything, that moment of escape is worth the effort on your part. People will remember you for how you made them feel more than what they bought from you. And if that’s a good feeling, they’ll be back.

On that note, I’ll conclude this blog not on a downward spiral but on an upward and funny one. One that examples you don’t have to overthink things. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money in getting the thought across.

But when you’re able to speak to the human condition and can find the humor in it—everyone can relate, no matter how you articulate the thought.

This photo was provided by one of our team members, and well while it might not be the best signage example of product partnering, it certainly is one of the funniest.

For over 60 years Medallion Retail has been in the business of helping retailers and brands define their missions and translating this in to the in-store signage and display. We have insights and ideas that help our clients not only weather whatever storm they encounter, but thrive. If you’re interested in what we can do for you, give our very own Chris Gordon a call @ 646.677.5618. He’s looking forward to meeting you!

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