Speaking Directly: What retailers say

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.It has...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

It has been said that life is like riding a bicycle. You don’t fall off unless you stop pedalling.

The same might be said of managing a business in these competitive times.

And, nowhere are the dangers of ‘falling off’ more evident than in the retail world, threatened at every turn by proliferating superstores, foreign invaders and takeovers and suffering from escalating taxation, fickle consumers and mall malaise.

Maybe it really is like riding a bicycle, and it’s only when you fall off and skin your knee that you realize you’re not such a good rider after all.

Certainly, there are a number of major, national Canadian retailers out there who are pedalling hard down the same old road as always in exactly the same old ways. Let’s listen to some of the things they say:

‘We’re a mass marketer.’

This approach is like the hunter who uses a shotgun to shoot one bird out of a tree. By blasting away, and spraying the tree with buckshot, we hope something will hit the bird.

Just so, upping the gross rating points, or sending out a million flyers as a newspaper insert is bound to hit a prospect or two, or, maybe, even a regular customer.

Have any of these folks ever calculated the cost of the millions of flyers that, just like the wasted buckshot, don’t hit anything?

One would think the concept of spending money on keeping customers, rather than throwing money away trying to constantly acquire new ones would be a welcome alternative to constantly buying mass advertising time and space, churning out millions and millions of glossy traffic-builder catalogues and/or weekly run-of-press flyers.

But, no. The beat goes on, and it’s the same old beat.

‘We’re merchandisers.’

What these folks seem to be saying is that as long as they buy a lot of stuff and stick it out on the shelves, then, surely and magically, somebody will buy it.

The emphasis is on the product, which, granted, you can’t build much of a business without, but, what about customers?

Has anyone asked them what products they want? And, has anyone calculated the effects of marketing more of what they want to them? And, keeping more of them coming back?

‘Direct marketing doesn’t work for us.’

I love this one because what it usually means is that they’ve mailed out a discount coupon or sale offer to every warm body whose name has ever been acquired through whatever means, from contest entries on cereal boxes to the head clerk’s little black book.

And, often, they’ve then turned around at the same time and put the same offer in mass newspaper ads and inserts, unaddressed postal delivery, and, who knows, probably billboards, too.

‘We can’t afford to address and mail our catalogues.’

This one goes on to say: ‘But, we can afford to have millions of them hand-delivered to every doorstep for miles around whether anybody has ever bought from us in those households.’

Sounds like that old shotgun at work again to me.

But, now we’re talking about much more expensive buckshot.

Once again, old habits die hard in the face of the lack of analytic skills and energy put into knowing the value (and cost) of a customer, and, likewise, the value (and cost) of acquiring new customers to replace lapsed ones.

‘Direct marketing is so expensive.’

The rest of this litany usually carries elements of any of the following self-justifications:

‘It costs too much to set up a database system versus just running ads,’ or, ‘I can’t justify spending that kind of money and not seeing break-even for months or even years,’ or, ‘How do I know it’s going to work? I want to know it’s going to work before I try it. Who else (in exactly the same business as I am) has done it?’

The unfortunate thing about this kind of thinking is that what it is also saying is: ‘I’m going to continue running ads because I can’t be sure anything else will work. Why should I wait years for a significant payback when I can run an ad on Wednesday, and drive traffic into the store on Saturday? Let somebody else take the risk first.’

To them all, I say, remember, failures are made only by those who fail to dare. Not by those who dare to fail, or collect a skinned knee.

Next month: the direct marketer’s response to the retail mind-set.

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues.