The Retail Doctor’s Prescription for a Better Business

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Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor.

With an assortment of red balloons, a stuffed pig, and a chocolate cake, nationally recognized business strategist Bob Phibbs looked ready for a kid’s birthday party. Five minutes into his Winter Institute keynote address on Thursday, January 20, he had a ballroom full of booksellers blowing up balloons and sailing paper airplanes through the room. The point was presentation matters, and by having fun you can grow your sales and customer base.

Phibbs, the author of The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business: A Step-by-Step Approach to Quickly Diagnose, Treat, and Cure (Wiley), also used the props to show it doesn’t take a lot of money to liven things up and that discounting isn’t a sustainable sales tool (a concept illustrated by having booksellers write a big dollar value on paper airplanes that didn’t fly any farther than those bearing lesser amounts, although those built with imagination and skill did). Instead, he said, grab someone’s attention. “If you’re selling political thrillers, put a stuffed pig in the window. People will stop and wonder, ‘Why is that pig there?’”

Narrative merchandizing is a key selling strategy. “You’re not selling a widget,” Phibbs said, explaining how he fell in love with literature when he read Steinbeck’s The Red Pony as a child. “You’re connecting people to their imagination. You know who else does that? Zip.” The problem, he said, is when a retailer lumps together too many of the same item. A better strategy is using a “this goes with that” kind of display, so the “customer is quickly invited to the purchase,” Phibbs told the audience. Another bonus of good merchandizing is that it “changes mission shoppers to browsers.”

As another example, Phibbs used a picture of a grocery store where the diapers were shelved next to a vodka display. The visual joke was something that customers got and enjoyed. The objective is to make shopping an experience that brings people back to the store, otherwise they can just go online, he said.

Phibbs’ other tips included: starting a conversation with a customer rather than asking “Can I help you?”; inviting a new customer on a two-minute store tour; and approaching people at a 45 degree angle with a book in hand rather than straight on. Jeff Waxman from The Seminary Co-op's 57th Street Books in Chicago agreed that the book prop is the perfect selling tool. “That works,” Waxman told BTW. “People always want to know what you’re reading.”

The overall tone that a merchant wants to set is “I have time for you right now,” said Phibbs. “You’re not something to get out of the way.”

Connect to people anyway you can, he added, online or off. “Technology is your friend.” Phibbs recommended using videos created by your resident experts, whether booksellers, librarians, or teachers, to help serve as video shelf-talkers.

He also summarized his approach to training staff about how to sell, whether in-person or online, with something he covers more extensively in The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business. “Whether they are old or young, black or white, gay or straight, look homeless or own a million-dollar home, with kids or without, married or single – [customers] are all purple and their money is green. If you can’t train your crew to adopt this attitude toward customers, then you’ll settle for bored, disengaged, or judgmental clerks.” To improve the shopping experience, Phibbs directed booksellers to weed out the “Bitter Bettys” on staff.

For more on the Retail Doctor’s prescription for creating a better business, read BTW’s pre-Winter Institute interview with Phibbs.