In a market such as exists today, retailers can be forgiven for thinking short-term or that they are the only ones suffering as badly as they are. Hosting a retail dinner a couple of days ago in Paris, it was striking how gloomy the mood was - to begin with. The initial conversation amongst retailers was about how poor business was. But it took just a few comments from the more international retailers present to pull everyone else up sharp with the realisation that in actual fact, France is weathering the storm far better than say Spain, the UK, Germany or further afield, the US or Japan.
One of the main reasons was said to be the very large public sector in France with over 7 million employed by State-owned bodies or organisations. Whatever the merits or not of that fact, it does inject more stability into consumer confidence than in other countries where unemployment is rising rapidly.
The message from the more positive retailers at the meeting was that it was imperative to keep a realistic view on the market and to keep looking for the opportunities. One leading retailer remarked that he is having to offer a wider range of price points than previously, but all with stronger emphasis on value. He added that it was noticeable that customers at the higher price points were buying classic lines rather than lines that would be out of fashion in a season or two.
But throughout the discussion, the issue that kept raising its head was ‘understanding the customer’. It was the single most important issue for many retailers - how to interpret consumer behaviour in this new era, how to understand younger consumers, how to build stronger customer relationships.
Such a lot has happened in markets in such a short period of time, it is not really surprising that retailers feel they have lots to understand about their customers. Again though, it took the more veteran retailers present to point out that this goes back to first basics of retailing - getting close to your customer. For the very large retailers this is going to be about better analysis of the millions of pieces of POS data, for everyone else, it is about getting closer to the trends that can be seen in store and online. Call it CRM, or customer-centricity, it doesn’t really matter. It all comes down to the customer and ultimately it will be the battleground that retailers will be fighting over more intensely than ever over the next few years.