Front End Retailing

Some time back I had written about my retail experiences as a customer or consumer. The posts made their way into almost all major retail chains, and a few of them interacted with me to get the first-hand feedback. Head of one of the retail chains said that they always suspected the pilferage by the staff, but could not nail it down in the absence of a proof. Today, I look at another rising aspect of retailing, and specifically the traditional retailing which I observed and I am not sure if it is something that is helping the consumer. I choose to call this trend Front End Retailing.

Let me start with anecdotes that lead to this piece and thought. Last month in Bangalore, I needed to get a broken glass put in my spectacles. Only one glass was broken, as I primarily wear contact lenses and use spectacles only as a backup, so I wanted only one glass to be replaced, of the same quality as the one which was intact. I went around 5-6 opticians, most of them in the upcoming areas of Bangalore, and to my surprise, all of them came up with the same answer. They all quoted the same price, they had no idea if they can get me the same quality as my intact glass so they suggested I change both the glasses. They very casually suggested that it is only going to cost you a few hundred Rs extra. They can not do the job in less than 48 hours, as they have to send the frame to the workshop and they do it only once in a day, at the end of the day, and can only guarantee the delivery day after at the earliest. The front end staff had no knowledge of the kind of glasses available. All of them assumed that I had bought the glasses from them and asked me to quote the customer number, and when I said it was not bought here, they had apprehensions about repairing items what has not been brought here and had to check it with their bosses on the phone if they can repair it, thankfully the answer was Yes this time.

We are in Gurgaon and we need to get some furniture made, and we have some idea of what we want. We go around furniture shops in and around Gurgaon, everyone claims that they make furniture to order, they have some display pieces lying around which you can pick if you like. No one is able to calculate the cost of furniture given the exact dimensions and material, all of them need to speak to their carpenter in the invisible workshop before they can tell the price. They all have catalogs, where you can choose the design and they will get it done in the workshop. For any customization in size, upholstery, material, they need to check with their carpenters and get back. Minimum time required for delivering any order varied from 2-4 weeks, and even a small item could not be delivered in less than 2 weeks.

I want a small earring made in gold with a pearl, something that slips into the ear and needs no screw to tighten, again from Jeweler’s point of view a very simple requirement. But no jeweler I went to was confident that he can make what has been asked, and suggested picking up something that was available on his tray. All of them were willing to sell what is in the store and can be sold as such. Any customization is highly discouraged. And if you insist, they would quote a ridiculously high price so that you change your mind.

What happened to customized services that were so readily available a few years back? What happened to the knowledge that the business owner used to have not only about his domain but also about what customers need? What happened to the small consulting that customers used to get as part of buying customized stuff from the shops?

Knowledge of the trade has suddenly gone missing in the process of exponential growth. It appears the focus is only on providing a sophisticated front end to the business, which they assume would be perceived by the customer as being equivalent to the good quality of work. Actual work is done in some central workshop in some remote corner of the city for all these front end guys. I am not even sure if they all have their individual workshop, in all probability, they are being catered to by a single or a few back end guys.

As a customer, do I like the suave environment that I get to walk into, the answer is definitely yes. Do I like it that most of the times that I walk in someone walks up to me with a smile (though rarely genuine), and says ‘Can I help you’?, the answer is maybe or at times. What about the experience after this? Most of the times, staff has lesser knowledge than the customers on the subject. Customers today have information on their fingertips, and if they are buying a high-value item they do their homework before they step out of their homes to purchase the item. While the staff is trained on how to talk in English, how to please customers, but most of the times they are not trained on the product that they are selling. That apart, since the core work related to the product does not happen in the same premises, the staff has no knowledge of how the product is priced, what material goes into it, how is the costing of the material and the service provided done, what goes into providing the product, how much time should it take. The back end is a black hole for them, where they only know that they can send the product and expect it to be back in a certain number of days.

Is this helping the retailers, I am not too sure. They have many more retail outlets spread across the city, giving them access to customers thereof. They are making themselves available to customers, but when the customers do reach them, ‘are they able to help them’ is the question that they need to answer for themselves. What is the goal of these enterprises? After all, all these swanky outlets and more than required number of staff come at a cost. Going by the volumes per outlet I am not sure if they are able to recover the costs incurred.

Another way to look at it is that this is the step one of organized retail, spreading out geographically, and the next step would be to provide depth to the products and services offered to customers. My view is that this fast growth to spread to as many areas as possible or the no of outlets opened should be balanced with the quality of services offered; otherwise, it may lead to a disaster. Retailers need to balance their growth paths, complimenting their breadth with the qualitative depth as well. And of course, there is a dire need to focus on giving business knowledge to their front end staff, so that they can help the customer. Soft skills are important but they only compliment sound knowledge of the job at hand, by themselves they can only annoying for the customers and hence for the business.

As I was posting this piece, I came across this related story at Dare Magazine.

Anuradha Goyal