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I’d already written the ‘Comment’ piece for this issue when what I’m about to relate here took place, but this experience couldn’t have been better timed.

So, just a week or so ago I was interstate to attend a friend’s birthday party. As it happened, she received a ruggedised compact camera from a her partner and, being a gadget freak, almost immediately decided there were a couple of accessories she just had to have. We headed off to the nearest shopping complex to visit the local camera store. No names, no pack drill here, but it was a specialised retailer and, as such, had no direct competition, but the complex includes multi-channel chain stores such as Harvey Norman and Officeworks which sell selected lines of imaging product. The store was fairly big and a bit barn-like, an impression not really helped by everything being displayed along the walls, leaving a big part of the central area pretty empty. It lacked ambience, especially as there were a load of shipping boxes in one corner waiting to be unpacked, blocking access to a couple of displays in the process. While we were there at least two customers tried to get around the boxes, but subsequently gave up. There were three sales staff on duty and all were occupied when we entered the store – which is good – but none acknowledged our arrival. My friend is also in retail and noted later that, even if she’s in the middle of sale and nobody else is on the floor, she’ll excuse herself briefly, and greet the new arrivals to let them know they’ll be attended to at some point.

OK, so we wander around the store looking at various display cases, picking items off stands to examine them and generally acting like people who want to buy something. Eventually, we stop close to a sales person who is selling a teenage girl a Canon EOS 600D… except he isn’t because he’s too busy trying to sell her some sort of course. I took notice of this because I’d just overheard a woman buying an Olympus E-M5 being given the same spiel. Now, education is a good thing to be offering customers, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of making sale (even if it is likely to be more profitable). The girl handled the camera, looking perplexed, and not a lot was being done to really help her. We didn’t see whether the sale was concluded successfully or not because my friend ran out of patience and we left. While we sat in her car in front of the store she ordered both items online via her iPad from a supplier in Hong Kong. Neither were very big purchases, but if you let enough $60 sales slip through your fingers in a week it must surely impact on your profitability. What’s more, the sales staff in this particular store weren’t to know that my friend wasn’t interested in buying the Nikon D800 that we spent a long time looking at while I ran through its features with her.

Now, I’ve experienced a lot worse in camera stores in the past, but in today’s challenging retail climate, all of the above ‘misdemeanours’ just aren’t acceptable. Neither is having totally passive displays. Cameras behind glass is so 1960s… and there was hardly an actual image to be seen anywhere, so what was really missing here was any sense of excitement, engagement or energy. It wouldn’t be hard to provide a bit more interactivity or involvement (which could also keep waiting customers occupied) and make the whole place a bit more inviting. I’m sure many retailers are trying harder, but it’s the experience that’s going to keep customers going to an actual shop to make significant purchases and anybody who can’t deliver a positive one on every level isn’t going to make it. Simple as that.
Paul Burrows, Editor