Friday, August 19, 2011

Competition Comes Knocking

     Throughout both my years in grocery and electronics retail I’ve had to deal with new stores that vie for your customer base.  Some tend to have a bigger impact on the scene than others.  Some fizzle out quicker than others.  However, the same reaction to news of an upcoming competitor always takes place each time.  The complete and total meltdown.
     It’s not that bad, in reality, but the people running the store, the district, the company, tend to make you feel that way.  It can generally start with the company devising ways to find out what this newcomer is all about.  People get sent into their stores to do a little snooping around and see what’s working for them and what’s not.  This can sometimes lead to the, “Oh, shit, that’s what we should be doing!” response that most management people have.  This can be a disastrous scenario because in some cases, the established store that feels threatened by the newcomer will sometimes drastically change things about themselves to mimic the newcomer.  I can understand the instinct to do this but it’s a terrible idea, in my opinion.
     First of all, people are shopping at your store because you’re obviously doing something right.  In this economy, if you haven’t gone into bankruptcy or closed down completely, it’s a miracle and you should keep on keepin’ on.  If you are changing key things about yourself to steal someone else’s thunder, then you’re changing the reasons people come into your store.  If they wanted to shop at store X, then they’ll shop at store X instead of trying to get the exact experience at store Y.  Do you go into a Target and think, “Man, this is a pleasant place to shop but why isn’t it more like K-Mart?”  If you wanted to shop at K-Mart, shop at K-Mart.  There was a pretty well-known store that closed their doors a few years back and people at my company credited to the fact that they were playing catch-up to us.  They changed different aspects about themselves but just couldn’t get traction.  Now, I don’t know if they’d still be in business had they just amplified the things they do well instead of trying to be like us, but at least they could close down knowing they played the game on their terms.
     Now comes the part where the store you work at implements the changes.  Sadly, the things they’re trying to change are the things that nobody cares about.  They’ll worry about too much signage when they should really worry about adequate staffing.  They’ll see workers’ desks and just see clutter when they should focus on making sure the products on their shelves are in stock.  They’ll remove tile flooring and lay carpeting down to make things look more elegant when they should fix the leaking roof or the bathroom that constantly smells like crap.  Yet, they want to take the easy way out of improving their company.  As we all know, the cheap and easy way out is always the best option, right?
     Good luck trying to convince management in your store that they’re focused on the wrong things, too.  I totally understand that some changes are out of their hands.  They don’t control the amount of money they have to hire people for example.  Yet, people just seem content to not question anything and just continue to go along to get along.  It’s maddening.  So all you can do, as an employee, is stand by and watch as the gong show plays out all around you.
     For months in advance, the sentiment of management about the approaching doom that is a new business coming into town can be a bit disappointing, to say the least.  In private, the management, which should be rallying the morale of the workers, will look at you with wide-eyed horror as they say to you how worried they are about the new competitor.  It’s as if they think we’re all going to be out of jobs within six months.  To me, this worriment is just proof that they don’t have faith in their own company’s ability to compete and also their employees’ ability to compete.  Only those who worry about a competitor coming in are those who think that something is wrong with the way they’re doing things.  Why else be so nervous about 1 new store being added to the mix?  It’s not like ours is the only company in the city that sells the products that are on our shelves.  If you think this competitor is such a threat and you say things like, “I don’t know what we’re going to do…,” (which I’ve heard from management in the past) then why hire the people you’ve hired?  That’s what’s annoying to me about the messages being spread from management when new competitors arrive.  To the workers they project confidence in the staffing they have but in private a lot of them seem to have no faith in their people.
     Personally, I don’t worry at all whenever a new store opens in the area.  I have faith in my coworkers and the company I work for to know that we’ll be fine.  Our business might hurt but that’s the nature of things.  We’ve stolen customers away from multiple competitors for years and we’ll continue to do so, just like they’ll do with our customers.  It’s the nature of retail.  If you can’t handle the other kids on the block, you might as well pack up your shit and go home.  And that’s life, really – you can either hold firm and believe in yourself and know that you can handle challenge or you can just give up and never get anywhere in life.
     More soon from the frontlines...