Thoughts on Retail

Over the past six weeks, I have been working at a local shop that trades all sorts of gadget-y items. It is sort of like the local high-street gadget shop, but not in a tacky way. The owner of the shop left the engineering industry to go into retail and that led him to create this shop about a year ago. Working in a very unfamiliar environment in an unfamiliar area – sales – has tested my slightly rusty people-reading skills and has given me an insight into the way our internet-driven retail economy is placing immense pressure on the high street.

I have compiled a list of things I have been thinking about these past few weeks with regards to retail, people, the internet and life. Please know that these are my own observations and this not intended to be a promotional post of any kind.


1. The Internet has spoiled us

How on earth is it possible that I can get a bluetooth Apple 30-pin adapter shipped from china for under £4 while still allowing the seller of said item to make a profit? In Argos, a similar item would cost upwards of £20 if I was lucky. Why is it that can I get everything cheaper on Amazon than in Maplin, or find seemingly unreal bargains on eBay that compete with my local Poundland?

These questions are not hard to answer. Online retailers have the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of shoppers, and as such they can purchase the stock in massive bulk at a hugely reduced price and sell for a small profit while still turning over a sizeable sum of money. A small high-street shop can only buy in small quantities and thus has to make somewhere between 30-60% profit on the item, which means that the markup is sizeable. This markup is an unavoidable consequence of the fact that from limited stock, the shop needs to make money, but the prices push more and more people to shop online. It is a positive feedback loop that disadvantages the retailer and consequently, drives these shops that are fun to look around in off the high street. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned that high-street retailers need to pay their staff. On a cost-of-staff-per-sale basis, I imagine that online retailers have a noticeably easier time.

This may not bother you too much. After all, if this trend benefits the consumer and the online retailer whats so bad about it? An argument can be made that it causes new small businesses to experience much hardship when faced with a giant online-retailer conglomerate like Amazon or eBay, but that is a separate discussion to be had another time. These are just my observations. However, an unseen impact that this trend has is an increase in the “throw-away” nature of our society. I could buy an iPhone dock for £3 online just to try it out and see if it fits my phone case, and if not, then £3 is not too much of a loss. If I went to a brick-and-mortar retailer, I can talk to the sales representative and ensure that the solution he or she is offering me is really the one that I need. Additionally, I might be forced to reconsider the purchase if the item were more expensive, which, as argued above, it would be. Thus fewer people would buy that item, decreasing the number produced and saving raw material.

This trend is destined to continue relentlessly, but in knowing its consequences you might be inclined to visit your local retailer again!

2. Shopping online takes effort

I want to buy a camera for example. I need to do hours of research, trawl through reviewing sites that may have undisclosed deals with certain manufacturers to give them a boost in the ratings, and then ensure that the product I am purchasing is not a fake. Fashion hasn’t transitioned to online as much as other sectors have because people want to try things and make sure the quality is up-to-scratch. High-street retailers like Jessops would have a member of staff on hand to advise me as to which camera was the better camera for what I needed out of a curated range of cameras on offer.

Retailers thus offer a sort of curation service and (should offer) impartial advise.

3. Sales is hard

I thought I could read people. Turns out that my skills need some honing! Approaching a customer to find out what they are looking for, if anything, can be intimidating. Some people react with child-like surprise at the things I show them. Others maintain a bored face and clearly want you to go away, but one thing is for certain, you need to be very much initiated in the local culture and mindset in order to understand how people would react to your questioning or intrusions when you want to show them a really, really cool product. In America, I noticed that the salespeople were far far too animated for my liking. It kind of put me off a bit. However, I would imagine that this is expected behaviour in America, and if I were being my perhaps less animated self in an American retail environment, customers may take a prompt disliking to me.

Knowing how to approach a person in the appropriate way and to champion a product in such a way that they become interested in buying it is no easy task. In the UK at least, you don’t want to seem too eager for them to buy something, but the constant reminder “close the sale!” is in the back of your head when speaking to someone showing interest in something – other times I have a nice chat with a genuinely interesting person though.

How does one close the sale? You could lie and tell them the product is selling fast and that there is limited stock (if that isn’t really the case), but that goes against my and my current employer’s values as members of quite a trusting community. You could employ other less covert methods, taught by professional salespeople, but at the end of the day it depends on the customer. The business is at the mercy of the customer: it is capitalism functioning properly!

4. Life is scary

This is a bit of a philosophical jump to make so soon, but with university coming up and the daunting prospect of real life, I feel like I should mention it.

I see the sales go through. I know how much we make per day, and I know the profit percentage. I know how high the taxes are. I know the approximate costs of the utility, phone and internet bills. I know how much each stock shipment costs. I even know how much lunch costs us each day.

Knowing all of this, I have absolutely no clue how anyone affords to live! I am not just talking about the high-street retailers either. When you factor in all the costs for basic necessities plus a bit of spending money, it seems more and more like living a life in london (I cannot speak for other areas of the UK or the world) is nearly impossible unless you are a lawyer, banker or doctor earning a six-figure salary per year. The prospects of having to get by on an engineer’s starting salary is absolutely daunting.

Yet somehow, people get by. The shop owner doesn’t take home a six-figure salary, yet he enjoys the things he does in his free time and manages to put one – and soon two – children through private education. How he does it, I have absolutely no clue, but even in the knowledge that if we have a bad christmas or a few consecutive bad months the business is almost finished, he does. It is comforting to know that somehow people get by. Maybe I might as well.


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