Not long ago, many retailers delivered their in-store revenue generation goals and objectives without much energy directed at the buying experience of consumers. Essentially, average store management, coupled with adequate customer service and merchandising practices, were more than enough to entice customers to buy a company’s products and services. However, the unprecedented economic meltdown has created a savvy consumer and good enough is not good enough any longer as retailers need to change their operating mentality to a more proactive approach, including capable leadership at the store level. Ideally, store managers now need to be adept at dealing with a formidable consumer, optimizing operating efficiency, and energizing their team members—no small task, even for the most progressive retail managers.

Times Have Changed

Without question, the Great Recession has impacted consumers’ attitudes and actions as they try to find more ways to spend less and reduce the need for credit, while at the same time manage their households in an on-going financial crisis. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, a collaborative study conducted by Deloitte and the Harris Group, “over 40 percent of all American consumers have been directly affected by the recession—lost jobs, pay cuts, or reduced hours.” Sadly, this commentary represents an extraordinary condition which has added a degree of difficulty for consumers trying to run their households and make ends meet.

However, rather than surrendering to this unfortunate situation, many consumers have treated this crisis as more opportunistic than problematic and have re-invented themselves, especially as it applies to their shopping efficiency. A compelling example that underscores how things have changed, is a recent Gallup poll that reported “consumer discretionary spending is currently at the lowest level since 2008 for lower and middle income consumers earning less than $90,000 a year and essentially flat for high income consumers earning over $90,000 a year.”

Not surprisingly, retailers have significant challenges as they compete for the loyalty of consumers. To a large degree, gaining the trust and loyalty of today’s consumer won’t be earned in the corporate conference room, but rather, it needs to be developed by strong leadership and teams of people who possess an unwavering desire and commitment to build customer loyalty at the in-store level. Although most consumers have been cut deep by the affect of the economic tailspin, they have remained tolerant by waiting in long lines due to staff reductions, understanding about thin inventories and not enough clothing and shoes in their sizes, smaller portions at restaurants, and less mall hours of operation.

Through it all, consumers now realize that they have more choices and are more likely to be frugal and demanding prior to extending their hard-earned money to just any retailer once they make their buying decisions.

A New Consumer Emerges

In spite of many marketplace changes, today’s consumers have learned many lessons as pointed out by another key statistic from the Deloitte and Harris Group study that indicated “93 percent expect to continue spending cautiously even when the economy returns.” Additionally, the study says that “89 percent feel that they have become more resourceful” and “84 percent have become a lot more precise in what they buy.” Like it or not, these noteworthy points from the study illustrate how consumers have modified their buying habits and clearly are more focused on taking advantage of coupons, changing brands or stores, eating at home more often than dining out, and rationalizing needs over desires. Consequently, reducing spending has made consumers smarter, not disadvantaged, and they have no plan to return to their old way of life when the economy rebounds. As a result, the years of spending beyond their means, being wasteful, and brand loyalty seem to be things of the past.

Furthermore, the change in consumer attitudes and behavior is forcing retailers to re-calibrate how they merchandise, advertise, train team members, and, most importantly, put in place resilient leadership teams at the store level with the capability to attract and retain customers. In the same manner, consumers now pose a formidable challenge for store managers and their teams as these consumers have done their homework and are armed with more knowledge of the products offered by retailers. Meanwhile, the arrival of the internet along with mobile devices provide consumers instantaneous access to a wealth of comparative information to further educate themselves in the marketplace. In fact, many consumers now view the challenge of making good buying decisions as a competitive game which they plan on winning. At a minimum, retailers need to enhance their merchandising practices with a variety of products that stimulates interest in such a way that entices customers to make a purchase.

The truth is, prior store management processes and conventional wisdom need to be replaced with forward-thinking leadership that is able to develop and earn customer loyalty in order to generate repeat business. Equally important, the expectations of consumers are that their buying experience is met with knowledgeable staff members who can extend simple courtesies in their interactions with consumers. These days, retailers that just rely on opening the store doors and waiting at the cash register for customers to buy are embracing a blueprint for failure.

True Success for Retailers Relies on Each Store Chief Executive Officer

Now, more than ever, the key success factor for retailers is to ensure that an in-store CEO organizational philosophy is established that allows a store manager to be self-sufficient for driving a comprehensive transformation in dealing with re-invented consumers as well as attaining company expectations. Simply put, retailers are no longer able to just depend on company-wide messaging, occasional training programs, and periodic management seminars to achieve in-store performance. But rather, companies must re-direct their energy toward establishing effective leaders and furnish them with encompassing authority that parallels how a CEO runs a company. After all, doing business as usual won’t deliver sustained results and runs the risk of making it easier for consumers to take their business to a competitor.

In a practical sense, having a capable in-store leader who is responsible and accountable for all store activities while relying less on distance management from the corporate staff, as it pertains to in-store functions, is a more effective system to attain company deliverables. Moreover, even though each store is usually a mirror image of each other as directed by corporate guidelines, store managers need to be solely responsible for establishing the culture that is consistent in dealing with the transformed expectations of consumers. In other words, store managers need to be highly skilled at developing and energizing their teams so that they are capable of making a memorable shopping experience for consumers by creating a genuine connection with them. As a result, long-lasting customer loyalty is achievable and ensures that customers keep coming back again and again and, just as important, they tell others.

The fact of the matter is store managers need the autonomy to manage all aspects of a retail store much like a Chief Executive Officer manages a company. Although the words are easy to say, the actions are more difficult and represent a sizeable challenge for retail managers. Nevertheless, the success of a retail store lies in the span of control of the store manager. Thus, managers with aspirations for a self-sufficient opportunity need to be ready.

Store Managers Must Take Control of Their Own Career Development

For the most part, since the retail sector is primarily built upon the relationship between retail employees and customers as retail employees have the first and last interaction with customers almost every day, much is expected from retail managers. Not only is there a demanding and smarter consumer to win over, achieving company performance expectations in a very different and competitive retail industry is a significant challenge. For these reasons, it’s critical that retail managers take control of their own career development.

While most retailers offer career path opportunities and on-going management training to develop their organizations, store managers, as well as prospective store managers, can’t just rely on the company for developing their skills and careers. On the contrary, these managers need to be more proactive and will be better served by taking control of their future as it pertains to improving their leadership skills and developing their careers. By not waiting, store leaders position themselves to be better prepared in meeting the demands of the job.

In actuality, an excellent way for retail managers to seize control of their career development is to take advantage of the numerous online training programs that are currently being offered. Fortunately, online learning has been perfected and refined over many years using established teaching principles. Besides, training online provides the convenience and flexibility for retail managers who are constantly trying to balance work and life priorities. In fact, online training continues to grow in popularity as many managers recognize the need to be proactive in furthering their learning and education. According to the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges, “67 percent report demand for online training is outstripping supply.”

For the retail manager, facing a daunting challenge from consumers, increasing competition in the retail industry, and meeting company performance expectations, online training can offer a critical advantage. Specifically, training online solves the problem for busy managers who lose work hours due to training priorities and permits them to concentrate on running the day to day operations. Also, there are no commuting and weather concerns as online training is conveniently accomplished in the confines of an office or home. So, when it is all said and done, retail managers who take advantage of online training have a distinct advantage of being successful as the economic meltdown eases.

In conclusion, the state of the retail industry is far more turbulent and competitive than it once was as consumers, jolted by the economic meltdown, have emerged with a much different mindset in their spending and buying habits. To this end, it is necessary for retailers to ensure that they are addressing the leadership requirements at the store level in order to make sure that they remain competitive and profitable as they focus on earning the loyalty of the new-age consumers.