A worried-looking gent came into the shop the other day and attempted to hide behind our display of thermal running socks. The retail trade is certainly full of surprises.
When my assistant Norman asked if he could help, the man replied: “I don’t want to buy anything. My exwife is coming down the street. Can I stay in here until she goes by? I’m two months late with the maintenance payments.”
I admit that was an extreme case, but the number of people coming into the shop without buying anything has certainly increased lately. They include a bloke who asked if he could sit in our reclining back-exerciser to superglue the sole back on his shoe and someone who was looking for an escaped boa-constrictor.
We also get people looking at our window display with expressions of disbelief, and others who get as far as the door without actually coming in.
No wonder I’m getting a bit paranoid and so, it seems, is Norman, who apparently took it upon himself to drop a word to the chairman of our local chamber of trade that Premier Sports was showing every sign of going up the creek and someone ought to do something about it.
As a result, a young woman with a clipboard and a squint appeared at the shop last Monday. She said she was Ms Prendergast, a specialist in retail-behaviourist strategy, and she had been sent to see if she could keep us in business.
“I haven’t been in a shop like this since I was a kiddie,” Ms Prendergast said, glancing at the chocolate and custard decor, the walnut-veneer counter put in by my dad in 1948 and the fly-paper hanging from the notice which reads NO CREDIT - AS A REFUSAL OFTEN OFFENDS.
“It’s the retro-retail look,” I said. “It makes the older customers feel at home. We usually have a hula-hoop on a hook behind the door and Norman’s bike propped against the wall next to the shelf of Dubbin, but he’s taken it to have a puncture repaired.
It seemed my irony was lost on Ms Prendergast who was now telling Norman about the importance of increased interaction between customers and a proactive selling environment.
What that actually meant, so far as I could tell, was cut down your profit margins to subsistence level and make sure the punters can walk around the shop without banging into something.
As usual, Norman was on the side of anyone who had nice legs, and said that as Ms Prendergast had a degree in retail behaviour strategy from the University of Harlow New Town we ought to at least give her a fair hearing.
Ms Prendergast fluttered her good eye at Norman and said that perhaps we should do something about our window display bearing in mind that the average customer looks into a shop window for less than three seconds before deciding whether to come in or not.
“It’s interesting that you’re promoting tennis rackets in February,” Ms Prendergast said. “What is the exact commercial motivation for that?”
I was about to say that when I put the tennis stuff in the window last summer I twisted my ankle and haven’t risked climbing in there again, but Norman, who was obviously desperate to make a good impression, beat me to it.
“LTA statistics show that serious tennis-players start thinking about new rackets and kit in the second week of January,” Norman said, obviously making it up as he went along. “We’ve really cashed in on impulse-sales this year. Can I tempt you to a cup of coffee?”
When Ms Prendergast explained that potential customers should have an unrestricted view of the window display from at least 25ft away to give them time to focus on the contents, a quick measure-up on the pavement showed that would mean moving a large tree, a bus-shelter and a dogtoilet bin.
Ms Prendergast said she would speak to her friend at the council but she couldn’t hold out a lot of hope.
Back inside the shop, she explained that as a customer’s first instinct is to turn right, that’s where we should display our most tempting products.
Although it obviously pained him to disappoint her, Norman felt he had to point out that a right turn would take punters through the toilet, into the shed where we keep the cardboard boxes and on to the railway embankment. None of these would seem to be very promising sales areas.
Ms Prendergast said she would give some thought to our rather unusual problems and make another visit next week. In the meantime, Norman and I have been involved in a bit of retailbehaviourist strategy of our own, and I’m happy to say that business seems to be on the up-and-up.
We found that in wet weather the front door jammed and potential customers must have thought the place was closed. Now my only problem is how to tell Norman that we won’t be needing another visit from Ms Prendergast after all.