“Slow No” Is Quickly Killing Retail

I recently came across an article titled “Retail Reframe: Death by ‘Slow No’” written by retail speaker and strategist Carol Spieckerman. In the post, Spieckerman delves into the uncomfortable truth many retail technology and solutions partners face today: due to retailer indecisiveness they are indirectly (or in some cases, directly) being told “no” over the course of several months, or even years, and it’s killing their company.

She did a fantastic job putting her finger on a key problem in retail. I will take it a step further, there are issues that I’ve encountered in my own experience while in retail that have me believing that this “slow no” problem is far more serious than Spieckerman admits.

The “Slow No” is like tire kicking for enterprise retail: Looking and strategizing while the field of play crumbles around your brand. By the time you pull the trigger, it’s a different landscape. That solution provider you were working with for two years has the new technology now, but you’re going to have a lot of meetings before you can get a pilot off the ground. Better hold off until next season.

These moments below happen even when clear success has been shown. Massive customer engagement, clear success stories. I know the difference, and I definitely call it out when there isn’t a fit. These situations are fits.

Cultural Blanket of “Slow No” is Destroying Enterprise Retail

My position has allowed me to work with dozens of retailers around the world. Over recent years I have witnessed brands struggle, stores close, and brands excel in their space.

I have found this “slow no” to be a leading indicator of these successes and failures.

The one thing that the struggling and closed stores had in common was their inability to act. In the article, Spieckerman touches the fact that “no” often means “not right now,” and I agree with that. However- that “not right now” needs to be understood and applied carefully. If you’re finding that “not right now” is just your brands cultural version of “slow no”, then start working on a way to be decisive.

There is a strong correlation between your ability to make decisions and your ability to succeed.

Add to this a common occurance of having the person whose job it is to bring the brand “Ideas and new tech” not being the person whose job it is to get those technologies into the fleet… trouble.

Being in a constant state of consideration creates a false sense of security.

Competitive Advantages are Dying on the Table During Your Reorganization

The era of the cutting edge POS saving the brand millions have passed. Everything going forward is bigger, more interconnected, and requires integration (sorry, this isn’t all plug and play).

Especially the Star Trek “store of the future” you talked about in the board room.

In many cases, head quarters staff are not in their job roles long enough to work through configuring and deploying an effective new retail strategy (or technology). Inherent inter-department company politics can create lengthy blocks which can bring progress to a halt. It has repeatedly been my experience that even the best proponents for new technology see the transition coming from so far out that they freeze well before it arrives.

Tight budgets for leadership and HQ head count cuts are hard to reconcile with project management cycles. Be open about those realities when the project kicks off so solution providers can keep up the tempo.

Despite technology being essential when it comes to thriving in this space, there is an immense lack of resources and experience when it comes to tech-savvy individuals in the retail industry. I suspect that pending H1B changes are going to rock the industry as well. It also does not help that the IT department is usually high on the business resources chopping block.

A key example was a major global conglomerate retailer that just announced massive store closures. They were unable after 5 conference calls to get a team together that could enact a router policy change on a single pilot stores stack. That’s not a joke.

If this sounds familiar it’s time to move quickly to make some changes.

Playing Against a Stacked Deck

The best retailers in the industry are risk-takers. They are not afraid of failure and are innovative at their very core. They know their brand so well that they project it and draw customers to them. They don’t have an existential crisis about “who is the customer” and they don’t hire consultants to periodically dive in and tell them. Be genuine and set the trend.

I’m looking at you LuluLemon. Great work.

Amazon, has ended hundreds of online retailers in its wake. Once they have a strategy in place the company pushes it forward at breakneck speed, which has turned them into an online retail giant. Add in a dash of fawning media praise for projects that don’t do so well, such as Amazon Go, and you have a recipe for tough competition.

Don’t play their game. You are different – you have stores, you have a brand, you can tell stories that they simply cannot.
Get to work connecting your Associates with your Customers. Believe in both groups.

Beating the “Slow No”

Retailers have to start trusting their gut instincts more and initiate strong calls to action if they want to beat the “slow no.” Here are a few ways I think this can be achieved:

  • Create timelines that inspire action. Scale your decision making and initiative testing timelines so that they coincide with the amount of time the teams making decisions are in their decision making roles.
  • Use metrics that work, and go with your gut. Don’t believe a third party analytics suite, and don’t believe that comps matter. Get into the stores and realize that the only metric that matters is the experience in the store. Find a metric that makes you proactive instead of reactive, and don’t believe a red-light/green-light black box.
  • Hire young, motivated talent and believe in them. Younger teams tend not to accept a problem as being a permanent one, and are more willing to take the risks necessary to find a solution. Don’t just hire them- give them authority to innovate. Make that the culture. If you’re not finding people who think fast, fail fast, and aren’t afraid of some misses- you’re setting up your own retail “slow no” moment.
  • Start celebrating risk. Wall Street may frown upon you and fellow retailers may give you the cold shoulder, but remember that the best competitors in retail are regularly praised for their boldness—even when their plans fail. This isn’t War Games and you’re not Matthew Broderick.
  • Pick solution providers with passion and expertise. Obviously, that means working with me if you’re focused on the fitting room or call buttons, or any number of other things – but really it means finding someone who you can trust to partner with and make it happen. Nothing is plug and play at scale, and that’s what you need to be focused on as a retailer. Find industry vetted partners who can deploy to every single store. Find your advantages and move them to those stores- rinse and repeat.
  • Don’t spec technology that’s only for the flagship. If you can’t move it to the whole chain, stop chasing it. The industry needs to show experience to as many people as possible and fast. Sure it looks awesome in NYC|Milan|Hong Kong but it’s going to win your brand in Schaumburg and Greensboro.

Retailers who drag their feet and choose inaction over action miss out on opportunities and are immediately outpaced by their forward-thinking competitors. I believe it is those which choose to embrace the ever-changing landscape of retail by implementing new technologies, producing clear expectations and outcomes at the end of every meeting, those who take action are going to be able to bend “slow no” to their will and stop it in its tracks.