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What I learned from buying soap

All the missed opportunities to keep a customer


As a columnist, author and speaker, I have spoken with many retailers who often tell me of the challenges they face because of the advantage the chain store, big box and mass merchants have over them. These retailers talk about the advantage of store size, location, hours, product selection, lower margins and buying power.

Unfortunately, what I am not hearing are the stories of the recognition and utilization of advantages the independent retailer has
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For years I have looked for a great example of what independent retailing is missing. As a customer, and a fourth generation independent retailer, I see the advantages the independent retailer has. As a customer, I also see the inability, or perhaps unwillingness of the independent retailer to apply those advantages. A couple of experiences with the same item, soap, provide me with the insight I share with you.

Soap; you can buy it in all kinds of stores. Everything from a convenience store or dollar store to a grocery store to a high-end store that specializes in soaps and is located in the best of malls. There can be a wide variety of products used in making a soap to provide the difference in scent, color, and what the soap does for the user.
An expert on soap; that is what I consider myself. After all, over the course of a year, I will stay in a lot of different hotels; each with one or more bars when you check into your room. And, as you read this story, you will see that I have purchased far more soap than most people.

Appropriately, taking a shower this morning, I came to the realization there is a connection between bars of soap and what is wrong with independent retailing.

Let’s start with the experience in the hotels. Each has bars of soap in neat little packages to offer their guests along with various other necessary toiletries.

If the package of a bar of soap, or the scent of the soap get my attention, I am sure to use it as compared to the bar I keep with my toiletries. I will definitely put what is left of that bar back in its package and take it with me to the next hotel and the hotel after that until it is all used up.

There was an experience with a certain type of bar that I have had multiple times. The soap has a scent that is very appealing to me. And while I like that, the factor that makes this soap my favorite is that it has small pieces of sage leaf, cranberry and bamboo in the soap which make a great exfoliant. In each case the bar was labeled with information about the hotel which prevented me from identifying the maker of the soap and going to a local store to buy full size bars.

Move ahead a couple of years, when speaking at an event in San Diego, I wander into a small specialty shop near the waterfront; their main product is soap. There must be over 200 types of soap in this neat little shop. The door signs indicated they take all credit cards.

Wandering about the store, I find a full size bar that resembles the little hotel bar that I like so well in that it has small pieces of something in the bar. And while the bar is completely wrapped in cellophane, there is a slight hint of the scent I remember.

Picking up four of the bars, I make my way to the register. The disappointment begins as my first exchange with an employee is the all too frequent experience of a cashier telling me the amount owed. No greeting or conversation; just the total of the transaction. The transaction is completed and the bars of soap are dropped into a bag.

Since the shop is in a tourist area, it would be easy to ask a customer where they are from. It would be just as easy to give the customer some contact information along with a, “If you want more of this soap, here is how you can contact us”.

Even then, a basic website and an 800 number would be simple ways to retain the customer contact. Designed properly, the website could bring new customers for the store in the way of orders, and the website could also retain the customers that the brick and mortar store has.

At the register there is a pen and paper with an invitation to sign up for their mailing list. And in anticipation I have found my favorite soap and will want to buy more, I sign up as well as take one of their business cards, especially as the cashier could not find the need to do either. After all, living in Florida, it is not like I am going to travel cross country to buy more of the soap. Even if the customer lived in San Diego, traveling to the waterfront district may not be as easy as ordering online.

I am always curious to see what a business does to get a customer’s information as well as what they do with that information. In this case, there was nothing inviting about signing up; just a form to do so.

There was a subsequent visit to the same hotel in San Diego that resulted in another visit to the store. I noticed the addition of a Facebook emblem on the door, so I quickly signed in and decided to look for their page to like.

During this subsequent visit, I purchased an entire case of this soap. Oddly, and sadly, there was again no interaction with the cashier (notice I did not say salesperson). Somehow I expected that a customer purchasing a case of one type of soap would at least cause some kind of comment or engagement by the employee.

Jump forward to today. My history with this store now goes back 13 years. In addition to these two visits to the store, I have multiple times ordered online from the store; the same product and each time ordering enough of the item to qualify for free freight. Each of the boxes from this store have contained soap; no catalog or promotional material.

There is not even a sticker on each bar of soap with the name and contact information for the retailer. What if I were giving these bars of soap as gifts and the gift recipient decided they want to order more of the soap?

Definitely no note of thanks. Just a plain brown box with the soap and a bunch of brown wrapping paper around it as packing.

The relationship ship between the retailer and this customer is like the relationship that many customers have with retailers; one sided. The retailer is saying, “If you want to buy the unique products we have, come on in. Or, call us, or use the website. Other than having a Facebook page, we aren’t going to do anything to nourish the relationship.”

Looking at the product selection, as a customer you have to think how challenging it would be to find those hundreds of different soaps without having duplication. Someone, as the buyer and likely also the owner, has to be very knowledgeable about the products as well as the places where the products can be purchased for the store.

Unfortunately for this store, that tremendous amount of information has not been shared with the front line employees, or these same employees see no advantage in sharing it with customers.

Simply said, these advantages are of no value if the retailer does not use them.

The soap experience continues with a soap specialty store here in St. Petersburg. Their beautiful and neat to shop in store is different from the first in that they make their own soaps. Produced in containers that are the shape and size of a bread loaf pan, they come in a wide variety of colors and artistic designs with scents that are most appealing.

Each loaf has a wonderfully worded sign telling the name of the soap and a description that invites you to read everything on the card. The employees will cut slices from the loaf and neatly wrap the slice for you.

The store has also, at times, had a great selection of soap created for the seasons and holidays. There is a Thanksgiving soap with a cartoonish turkey in it that would look neat in any bathroom or kitchen. They have a selection for Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Christmas, New Years, Mother’s Day and just about any holiday you can think of.
This boutique will also custom make soap for you.

You give them the design you want in the soap, select the colors and scent, and in a few days your selection will be ready for you. It has been a fun shop to visit and spend money in. Over the years, we have bought more than 12 dozen bars of soap from this place. Twice we went to reunions and had bars made for all of the attendees. You would think this amount of purchasing as well as special ordering would cause the store to notice their customer.

What a unique concept. Where could you possibly find another store that has such an offering for their customers?

And for the adverturous, you can schedule a time to come to the shop and make your own soap by yourself or by having a part with your friends! Unfortunately, the only way you find this out is by asking. There is no signage explaining this offering.

When you shop in this store, they also have a sign-up sheet for an email list. Oddly enough, neither of the two stores in this story have ever sent an email or newsletter. The second store tracks your name and amount of purchases for a rewards program. Unfortunately, none of the employees have ever explained how the rewards program works. Apparently the reward for a free bar of soap must be at a substantial purchase level.

As this second store is close by, we can easily visit it. Frequent trips to the store have become somewhat frustrating as you try to buy soap for the July 4th holiday during the last week of June. It seems at that late date, they still have not decided if they are going to make any patriotic soap designs.

Another missed opportunity. After all, if a customer bought a bar for any holiday, wouldn’t it be an easy add on sale to tell them of all the other holidays the store created themed bars for? What if the store had a “club” that you would sign up to get a bar for each of any number of holidays.

Nothing! Just like the first store. Here we are and this is what we do. Our customers know where to find us if they want to buy more.
The bottom line of the story is that these stores, like most of the rest of retail are not selling anything that a person has to have to exist. Spending money, again like the most of retail, is an expenditure of discretionary income. Discretionary spending should be fun, entertaining, and memorable for the customer.

Instead with these two stores, like many others, it is easier to just go shop somewhere else. The advantage these two shops could have over any other independent shop, chain store, big box or mass merchant retailer, has been ignored by the owner and employees.

The idea of enjoying the soap at the various hotels will continue. But the desire to seek out either of these two independents is gone. There will be other stores that will have the opportunity to win the customer’s attention and continued patronage. These two could even win it back with a bit of effort. Tomorrow morning, this writer will be taking a shower using a bar of some common soap; probably Ivory.

By the way, what are the products you are selling? Can I get them somewhere else? Or, could I find something else that will occupy my time and most importantly my discretionary spending?

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