Management Retail

Counter intelligence: ‘Retailing is Hard.’ — Steve Jobs

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Counter intelligence: ‘Retailing is Hard.’ — Steve Jobs

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times a number of years ago picturing Steve Jobs announcing to the world that Apple was opening retail stores. Behind him hung a banner reading “Retailing is Hard.” During that period of time, I was involved in retailing on a daily basis, and I thought to myself, “Steve, you have no idea.”

Well, of course, he did have an idea, and it was a big idea. That big idea continues to rewrite retailing, in many ways setting a new standard for all retailing around the world. At the time, I was a PC user, and I couldn’t understand the excitement about Apple products. Today I’m typing this article on an iPad, and when I’m done, I’ll simply touch the screen a few times in a few different places, and I’ll email the article to Jackie, my proofreader. Then I’ll pick up my iPhone and send a text message to notify Jackie that the article has been sent. When this article is then returned to me, I will simply forward it to the editors at MTD from my iPhone or iPad, and it’s done. Apple products are powerful and fun to use, and I understand why the Apple Store near me is always crowded.

As I think about our industry in terms of “Retailing is Hard,” I remember how difficult it was and is. It takes a special kind of individual, a hardy type of individual, to work retail, especially automotive retail.

I think Steve Jobs, along with many of his contemporaries, have possibly made retailing harder. The pure brick-and-mortar retailer must now compete on a much broader scale. Consumers have instant access to tire and service information like never before. Again, studies show they are taking advantage of the availability of this information; almost seven out of 10 tire shoppers will research online before making local calls to source the products they have researched.

As a result, many more consumers call with as many opinions as questions. This makes each call today more challenging and complex, harder to control and harder to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. More often than ever before, when the phone call is done, there is less clarity and more uncertainty for both parties.

My concerns and observations are that we, as an industry, have only begun to adapt to this new level of complexity, and we are stuck in old thinking. I’m only going to attempt to tackle this one observation in this article.

As I listen to retailers on the phone answering callers’ questions, it’s obvious to me that counter salespeople are more on edge, less comfortable, more frustrated, and often considerably more defensive. Defensive, defensive, defensive... everybody seems so defensive.

Why then, if everyone has more information, is the frustration level apparently higher? I’ve asked this question to enough people who truly understand the question. Here are two responses of a multipart answer.

Number one, there is a generational technology gap (old timers who don’t understand Yelp or any of an increasing number of places to drop a review), and number two, unskilled, untrained, indifferent and defensive counter salespeople who disregard and foolishly challenge a caller’s research. Both responses create separation rather than assurance; they divide rather than unite.

I agree with Steve Jobs that retailing is hard. We operate at the very end of the supply chain. I like to say. “Retail is where the action is. If it doesn’t happen at the counter, it doesn’t happen.”

Thousands of products have died on retail shelves, but people consistently need tires, auto maintenance and repair. Studies show a very high percentage of aftermarket consumers buy our type of products where they live and work; in other words, locally. I believe that counter salespeople have placed way too much credence in the competitiveness of the Internet. Statistics show that people buy local so, in essence, local retailers continue to compete with other local retailers for the lion’s share of the business.

We will discuss this further next month, but until then, I’d like to offer these thoughts:

• First, you may not agree with the opinions or conclusions of potential customers as a result of their online research, but you must not arbitrarily dismiss their findings.

• Second, you must offer assurances that doing business with you will be satisfactory; you must instill confidence.

• Third, it’s more important than ever you become both a product and people expert.

• Fourth, relax. Remember, people buy locally; allow the business to come to you.    ■

Wayne Williams is president of ExSell Marketing Inc., a “counter intelligence” firm based in La Habra, Calif. He can be reached at

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