Our target demographic was middle aged, maybe 30s-50s, and we had quite a loyal customer base and many customers, especially the men, would "only wear The Company shoes/shirts" according to their wives! Customer service was paramount and we were all well trained at being able to offer excellent service and product knowledge. I was impressed. There were not many other stores that I knew of that would require its staff to know about clothing fibres and materials, construction methods, sole materials, fittings and the like. We are expected to offer this kind of service and knowledge to each customer we serve.
However, though the people in upper management haven't changed too much (as far as I know, they are very secretive, more on this later) The Company is now moving in a different direction. We have two kinds of stores: smaller retail stores usually located in shopping centres or shopping strips - full price items, full service stores that offer lay-by, orders, and superior customer service and then there are our larger clearance stores usually in outer areas (think Kmart size, in rural areas) - self serve, different ranges of stock, 'what's there is what you get' and discontinued and damaged stock. Clearance stores are supposed to only carry discontinued items sent from the retail stores. That is why they are so heavily discounted, right? Not all sizes or colours are available, it's just the luck of the draw. At least, that's how it was when I first started.
Now for some incomprehensible reason and seemingly in blatant disregard of federal legislation and fair trading policies, The Company has decided to bring out the SAME stock in the clearance stores as the retail stores. So now they are in direct competition with us, though we are in fact one and the same company. We just have hugely different prices. Yes, that's right folks, same products, different prices. No, the stock at clearance is usually not faulty. For example, early on in winter this year, we had men's suede jackets in retail stores for $170. Fair enough, a cow (or 2) had to die for that jacket. In the clearance stores, which are inching closer and closer to us, geographically, they were selling for $100. Is that the price you put on a cow's life? Anyhow, the main problems with the changing nature of the clearance stores were:
- they stock the same current season products as we do
- they are heavily discounted (40% or more)
- they have full size ranges, and plenty of stock
- they are advertised in campaigns as being new in and heavily discounted
- THEY GET THE STOCK BEFORE WE DO!
Take for example any designer store or regular boutique like Wayne Cooper or Marc Jacobs or whatever. They have retail concept stores in prime positions in shopping centres or shopping strips in the city, etc. They all stock new season stock which is full price and rotated regularly, so say, once a particular dress has been in store for 5 weeks or what have you, they then move on to new styles and send whatever is left over of that style of dress to their clearance stores. The clearance stores are in outer areas and/or in warehouses to keep costs down. They stock gear that has been discontinued, right? Fair enough. Not all sizes are available.
As the stock in clearance stores is heavily reduced, obviously they will sell well and be popular, seeing as it is the same quality and has the same 'brand name' and reputation as what you are buying from the boutiques. It's just a matter of whether you can get your size/colour/etc in what's available. Yes, you are paying our wages by shopping retail and paying for the higher overheads like rent, fixtures, etc. So, seeing this, The Company has figured that they could probably increase their profit margins by turning over more stock in the clearance stores. How do they do this? Bring in more stock, regular supplies and sizes, popular, current season stock, and heavily reduce it. Advertising helps as well. I must admit, they have been quite successful in this aspect.
So the clearance stores' sales have taken off. Bright idea: let's open up more. That'll further increase profits. But what to stock them with? There can only be so much 'discontinued' or past season stock with so many retail stores. So they decide that the clearance stores must sell something, so for some asinine reason, they stock them with the same products as they do us. Obviously, that has killed our sales. With the opening of more and more clearance stores, and some in ridiculously close proximity to the retail stores (try 400m down the road), it is only understandable that there will be the inevitable customer confusion and loss of sales.
So what has The Company done to remedy the situation? Close down the retail stores, as they're not making money. In the past month, 2 retail stores in Victoria have been shut down. One of them was a flagship store in the biggest shopping complex in the Southern Hemisphere. Sure, they increased the lease (exponentially, one would imagine), but to not even relocate within the shopping centre and shut down completely will lose a lot of customers, new and old. I'm sure our competitors will have no trouble finding more loyal customers.
Countless other stores interstate have suddenly disappeared without a trace. Browsing through The Company's website will alert you to the confusion faced by customers as they go to shop at their favourite store, only to find that it has disappeared and there is no notice of where it may have been relocated to or why. The Company's response to the customers' comments were that there will be a clearance store opening nearby (but not as conveniently located) shortly. This does not bode well with us working in the retail stores, especially when we know or think that our lease may be up shortly...
At the moment, The Company has decided to not only focus on the sales and success of the clearance stores, but of course, not ignoring us completely, have decided to attempt to increase our sales and patronage to our stores by lowering prices and having regular sales. Needless to say, this has brought in a completely new breed of customers. Ones that won't pay $60 for a shirt, gasp when you respond that the jacket is indeed correctly marked at $180, ask when the next sale starts and ask for discounts on socks and undies. It was only 2 years ago that a sale was a privilege and were few and far between. We didn't need to have them all the time because we knew that our customers would come back for the same styles of clothing that they're comfortable in, even if it be the exact same pair of pants or shoes he'd bought 2 years ago. 'He only wears The Company jeans, so I just need another pair of the same style please'. Customers were polite, understanding and willing to fork out the money for their quality goods. Our catalogues advertised new stock at full price and people would still come in to buy them. You could count on us to have all the pants at $70 and all the shirts at $60 or whatever. People were happy with that. We didn't need to ply them with cheap gifts as incentives.
Right now, with most stock being marked down at our retail stores (I know, because we spent hours repricing them) and the arrival of new, sometimes skanky, poor quality clothing, our individual sales have dropped. Thus, the commission earned by retail staff has also dropped. The retail stores are now not in direct competition with The Company clearance stores, but it looks like we are now trying to compete with Best and Less, Big W and other 'value' department stores.
Thing is, once you lose your reputation as being a prestigous, quality apparel chain, it doesn't come back easily. I used to be extremely proud of working at The Company. Now I just question where it's headed and whether we'll all have jobs in the next few years.