Changing retail scene means lower prices for consumers

Sylvia Porter

May 08, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

Shopping is not the same as it was in your parents' day -- for several reasons.

One is the decline of the local independent store offering personalized service from owners and employees who are your neighbors. Today, this kind of store struggles to compete with national retail chains that generate revenues on volume. That volume, coupled with cutbacks in service, means lower prices for you.

Changes in service stem from economic and social changes, not from deliberate neglect by merchants. Today's merchants know precisely what they're doing, and the best of them are booming by offering you what you want.

A few large retail firms were targets of the "leveraged buy-out" frenzy of Wall Street and either disappeared or now are struggling to survive financially. If merchandise or service is not the same, it could be because top management's attention is elsewhere. That difficulty will likely disappear.

Another fundamental problem in traditional department stores is the shortage of personnel. Retail firms say it is difficult to find qualified sales people, and turnover is higher than ever, they report, straining resources for training.

Still, the greatest challenge to retailers is that your buying behavior has changed, says Alice McCord, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation. Today's affluent shoppers -- the baby boomers, 70 million strong -- have revolutionized retailing. The choice between personalized services and lower prices is one that they -- and you -- make. You have said by your buying habits that you want the discounts, the lower prices that do not include personalized services. And you put a high premium on saving time.

Some retailers are having difficulty changing their views. But not all. The department stores are going new directions just to entice you: faxed-in orders, store shoppers, at-home shoppers, better parking and the like.

The greatest success is coming to the new "concept retailers" that target their customers' habits -- stores like Home Depot, Toys R Us, Gap, The Limited. These retailers respond quickly to style changes, and their products are priced attractively. They have an advantage because they are vertically integrated, that is they own their factories, and therefore control their merchandise sources. A few concept retailers defy the trend. They lavish you with service and thrive on it -- like Home Depot, which helps amateur do-it-yourselfers master fundamental skills.

Does this mean the end of the traditional department store? Not at all, says McCord. It just means department stores face a more competitive, fragmented market. They are not the only type of retailer in town anymore, and that will certainly limit their growth. McCord points out there still are department store chains, like Dayton-Hudson, that are highly successful and profitable and will continue to be.

If you are typical, you want to save both time and money. Some of you shop more freely not shadowed by a salesperson. You want it easy to make a purchase -- to get in and out quickly. Thus, in the new type of store, everything is in sight. There are no clerks to get in your way. You are willing to serve yourself for a lower price.

Yet the operating rule remains "the customer is always right." You still can protest rude or poor service and get a hearing. If you feel you have been treated shabbily, complain to the store manager.Better yet, complain in writing to the president of the corporation. Your letter aqnd others like it will provide information to top management that can do both of you good.

You get what you pay for.If you want your hand held while your're deciding what to buy, expect to pay more and do your shopping at a place offering that kind of service -if you can find one.

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