Everyone can be a star on the big retail stage

ON EXCELLENCE

February 28, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Few readers of this column are software designers or purchasing officers for Fortune 500 companies. Most are in retail. They work in dress shops, record shops, auto body shops and restaurants. Or they're nurses, doctors, teachers, or, like me most of the time, seminar presenters -- retailers of another sort.

If one of these activities is yours, consider yourself lucky. I do.

Retail, as practiced by Wal-Mart or Nordstrom, calls for sophisticated information systems, skill at finding the right location at the right price, and, of course, artful selection of merchandise. But given all that, the essence of retail is theater. Retail, in the classroom or showroom, is a performing art.

Have you ever walked onto the field of a Big Ten football stadium in July? It's eerie in its stillness. And yet, especially if you're an alum or former player, you can feel the emotion of 80,000 fans who will gather 60 days hence.

A shop, or especially a big retail store, feels the same way at 6 a.m. Still. Dark, except for the glow of night lights. The merchandise casts long shadows on the empty floors.

But, as with that football arena, you can sense the tension building. The coats or toys, or pens and pencils if it's a classroom, are stirring, awaiting the performance.

If I'm scheduled to speak to 17 or 1,700 people in Miami or Timbuktu, I like to sneak down to the slumbering meeting room at 1 a.m. or so the night before. I can sense the spirit of the group that will assemble eight hours later. It invariably primes me to go back and do a few last preparations. In fact, such stealthy visits to deserted spaces frequently have led to total revision of my remarks.

That's why I love retail!

Sure, I count on the seminar organizer to bring in a good crowd, select an adequate facility and get a hundred logistical details just so. Likewise, the store clerk counts on the powers above to choose a location that attracts customers and to provide merchandise that sings.

Still, it's my show or your show. The auditorium opens, the auto body shop's garage door clanks upward, the class bell rings. And we are absolutely, positively in charge. It's our stage. Literally, not figuratively. That classroom or showroom is as much a stage as the main platform at Carnegie Hall.

It's up to us to invest the script (a play by Ibsen, food by Chef Whomever, chapter seven of the U.S. history textbook) with life. To perform. To create emotion.

Retail is a connection business. Relationships are forged, one at a time, with an audience of 2,000 or a single auto-repair customer who suffered a fender-bender yesterday afternoon.

The best bosses understand. They're collaborators and retailers themselves. They're out and about, nudging and cajoling, chatting and listening and cheering. The worst are wholesalers. They hide behind secretaries and assistants, memos and videotaped speeches to the masses. They fail to connect, to emote. Then they fail, period. (This is especially true in chaotic times like these, where retail connection alone can ease the pain of inexorable change and dislocation.)

Retail also allows -- no, requires -- you to reinvent. Actors and actresses will tell you that every audience is different. So is every day in the classroom, restaurant or surgical suite.

For great actors and actresses, each day is a golden opportunity to experiment with a new approach -- in fact, with nothing less than a new persona. What are you going to be today? How are you going to connect? Today is a clean slate. So what's your new twist?

I said great actors and actresses because there are, obviously, average and lousy actors and actresses, just as there are average and lousy bellhops and teachers. The definition of great is, mostly, the imagination and zeal to re-create yourself daily.

Best of all, retail for you or me is management-proof. Sure, managers make you abide by thinner or thicker rule books. Some bosses hover, some give you space.

But the point is that at 10 a.m. sharp, it's your store (or at least your 75 square feet). You are absolute master, ruler, czar. You alone bring that 75 square feet, or those five restaurant tables, to life. Ninnies or saints, fearful or fearless, management can't hold you back.

If I sound like a revivalist preacher on this topic, it's because I am. And I'm in love with the boundless, albeit often squandered, potential of retail.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-6200.)

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