21 Retail Experts Reveal the Biggest Mistake That Retailers Make — and How To Avoid Them

By: Abby Heugel

Everyone makes mistakes, and if we’re lucky, we’re able to learn and grow from them. But the good news is that you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself. Smart entrepreneurs study what others have done and make adjustments that benefit their business.

We asked the most influential people in retail one simple question: “What’s the biggest mistake retailers make, and how can this be avoided?”

Their answers are insightful, thoughtful, and applicable to not only just business, but also life.

1. Recognize that you need help

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle

Founder, Retail Minded

Retailers often stretch themselves thin in their efforts to do it all. Keeping this in mind, it’s important for retailers to welcome external vendors and business partners to support them in their collective efforts of achieving retail success. Recognizing their weaknesses and strengths, as well, is among the ways to help identify where you may need additional support.

From marketing to merchandising to social media planning to inventory assortment and more, the list that retailers have to create a dynamic retail experience is long. Acknowledging that you need support in effectively accomplishing your retail goals will put you one step closer to actually making them.

2. Neglecting your employees and stores

Steve Dresser

Director, Grocery Insight

The biggest mistake retailers make is not looking after stores or their people, rendering them unable to look after customers. It’s as basic as that.

Fundamentally, the lack of care for stores is the main issue that faces all retailers today. Arguably more so with technology promising to change everything for everyone. Does it? Is it scalable? Does someone just want to launch the latest tech in three shops so they can get a write-up and put it on their LinkedIn?

There is no time and motion study that can account for the hours needed for customer service. You can measure how long it takes to fill two aisles, but not to help two customers, one who may not buy anything, but may be so impressed with what the colleague did to try and help, they tell their friends, the store/brand then benefits from the positive feedback.

3. Having shiny object syndrome

Tony D’Onofrio

Motivational Speaker, CEO, CCO

Chasing the latest shiny technology object for PR moments versus focused sustained initiatives to increasingly digitally engage consumers.

To avoid this, understand clearly the value proposition of your brand. Create a multi-level strategic plan to immerse your customer into your brand. Leverage a select limited number of technology partners to co-deliver solutions to market. Think Prime or Netflix as critical future loyalty-building recurring business models.

4. Competing on price instead of quality

Bob Phibbs

The Retail Doctor

Thinking all customers want is the cheapest price, not the best. They’ll buy the cheapest thing if that’s what you sold them but they won’t be back because the product will invariably not last or deliver. You don’t sell on your wallet or your needs, but on the shopper in front of you.

5. Focusing on reducing costs instead of adding value

Brian Kilcourse

Managing Partner, RSR Research LLC

Believing that they can cost-cut their way to success. RSR sees it all the time in our benchmark studies – under-performing “laggards” focus on cost reduction rather than on delivering compelling value to the customer. Winners are relentlessly focused on delighting their customers.

6. Paying attention to your competitors instead of your customers

Melissa Gonzalez

#RetailwithMelissa, The Lionesque Group

I think a lot of retailers see what their comps are doing and we often hear “we want to be like so and so”. The key is really about knowing your customer and thinking about and listening to what they want and expect.

7. Failing to evolve your culture

Richard Kestenbaum

Partner, Triangle Capital LLC

The biggest mistake retailers make is to be trapped by their own culture. Consumers want something different now and big retailers are trapped from giving it to them by their culture which needs to change. It’s the hardest thing to change, but the only thing worse than having to change culture is not being willing to change.

8. Blaming factors you can’t control

Andrew Busby

Founder & CEO, Retail Reflections

One of the biggest mistakes I see retailers making is to focus on things that are outside of their control. Good examples of this are Amazon and the weather; neither of these can be controlled, but it doesn’t stop retailers blaming them for their own performance. Instead, they should be asking themselves, ‘What can we do that Amazon cannot?’ and ‘How can we use the weather to our advantage?’

I recently met Francis Bishop, a young retail entrepreneur who owns The Pud Store which sells childrenswear. When I mentioned the weather, she laughed and said that they sold out of sandals when it was snowing! So don’t use the weather as an excuse for poor sales.

9. Not focusing on store operations

Cathy Hotka

Cathy Hotka & Associates, LLC, Connecting Insiders in Retail

Not paying enough attention to store operations. Exciting, innovative, and compelling stores are the key to modern retailing, along with a thoughtful data strategy that results in meaningful offers to consumers.

10. Being too attached with your existing systems

Joseph Skorupa

Editorial Director, RIS News

Falling in love with your infrastructure, technology, and business processes just because you built them is a recipe for disaster. Retailers used to be built to last, but today they need to be built for change.

11. Clinging to the past and not putting the customer first

Chris H Petersen

Consultant, Keynote Speaker, Blogger, www.IMSResultsCount.com

One of the biggest mistakes retailers can make is to ignore the core essential of focusing on their customers first, before everything else. Even the smallest retailers can successfully compete if they provide their customers relevancy through personalized service, attention to detail, unique offerings, etc.

The biggest mistake retailers can make is to cling to the past and their heritage. The customers now make the rules and set ever-increasing expectations. The underlying failure of the retailers closing their doors is the failure to innovate on the basis of their customers. They are not listening to, or engaging their customers.

12. Failing to think long-term

Anil Aggarwal

CEO, Shoptalk & Groceryshop

The biggest mistake anyone can make is thinking incrementally in a world that’s changing exponentially. This reality becomes apparent only in the long term, so the best thing to do is play the long game by building for three-five years out. That’s tough because the market measures short term performance, but it’s the only way to win.

13. Failing to get help and be adaptive

Brian Walker

CEO and Founder, The Retail Doctor Group

To not take counsel, think outside the square, be adaptive, open to possibilities. Ask ‘what if’ and ‘why’ more often. To not to accept the past as the present and the present as the future.

14. Doing too many things

Paul Greenberg

Director, National Retail Association

The oldest trap in retail is trying to be too much to too many. The ‘paradox of choice’ theory reminds us that less can be more, and a steely focus on doing what you do best is better than trying to spread the net too wide.

15. Underestimating your customers

Miya Knights

Head of Industry Insight, Eagle Eye Solutions Limited

The biggest mistake retailers make is to underestimate their customer, including their wants and needs! This can often simply be as a result of a lack of understanding of who their customers are, as well as what they do when they shop with you and why.

The simple truth is that today retailers can avoid this limited visibility by using a digital connection to customers online and in-store to infer what they want from analyzing the data that customers share with them.

They can also win with more customers by using this same digital connection to give them more of what they want, which includes greater speed, convenience, choice, relevancy and transparency – along with a competitive service and price.

16. Adopting tech for tech’s sake

Neil Saunders

Managing Director, Retail, GlobalData

Today I think the biggest mistake is introducing new technology and gadgetry for the sake of it while failing to get the basics right. You hear so many CEOs and senior people in retailing talking about the next big idea when their stores are abysmal and customer service leaves a lot to be desired. Progress is vital, but so do is managing the day-to-day business.

17. Failing to be data-driven

Cathy Donovan Wagner

CEO, Retail Mavens

They avoid their numbers. We find that few retailers know how much business they have to do in order to have positive cash flow and pay themselves. That makes no sense. It’s like they are hoping for the best. They start their stores because they are crazy passionate about something and want to share that with their world, but they soon find that passion alone doesn’t pay the bills. Then what?

18. Seeing yourself as solely a financial enterprise

Daphne Howland

Reporter, Retail Dive

Based on my reporting I think that when retailers begin to view themselves as primarily financial enterprises is when they tend to lose their grip.

19. Not having a handle on your inventory

Greg Buzek

President, IHL Group

Not making the investment to have consistently accurate inventory. Consumers come to stores because they expect to get the product right now. If you don’t have it, you will likely not save those sales by ordering online, but rather you will lose those sales to Amazon, Walmart and other marketplaces.

Investing in RFID/Computervision and advanced forecasting is no longer just a nice thing to do, they are absolutely required for success going forward. We used to HAVE to shop. Now we must WANT to shop. If you don’t have it, we are far more likely to write you off for that category of merchandise in favor of Amazon Prime.

20. Not being customer-focused

Helen Dickinson

Chief Executive, British Retail Consortium

Forgetting the customer. We are in the midst of a transformation. Technology is changing how people shop, costs are rising, and demand is sluggish. But the fundamentals of retailing are as they always were. Relentless, laser-like focus on what it is that customers want, need, and feel will always be the cornerstone of a winning retail strategy.

21. Not taking advantage of transition periods

Carol Spieckerman

Retail Speaker & Strategist to Brands, Spieckerman Retail

The word ‘disruption’ is thrown around a lot these days, but less talked about is the more dominant reality of transition. Retail is in a constant state of transition, and the transition periods between now and next, are where the opportunities lie. This holds true for transitions between technologies, business models, consumer preferences, and much more.

Too many retailers and others in the retail sphere are only thinking in terms of what’s next or they are fearing the next so-called disruption. I encourage my clients to ‘find treasure in transitions’ instead. If you look closely at some of the most successful retailers and brand marketers, this is always in their mix. They facilitate transitions, which also ensures their role in defining what’s next for everyone else. This applies to all kinds of retail realities and life situations. True leadership comes from building bridges and walking others across them.

Further Reading

Want more influencer-backed insights? Check out Vend’s Retail Trends and Predictions for 2019, where we detail some of our forecasts for the near future. Sprinkled throughout the piece are quotes and input from the industry’s top experts and analysts.

The report sheds light on:

  • Practical steps that you can take to boost staff engagement
  • The latest retail tech advancements and how to use them in your business
  • Recent consumer and geopolitical issues that retailers should be aware of

Check it out to learn what you can do to win in 2019 and beyond.

Learn More

Stop making avoidable mistakes

We all make — mistakes they’re certainly part of every retailer’s journey. And while committing errors almost always provides a learning experience, recognize that you can also learn and grow by avoiding certain mistakes. Hopefully, the words of wisdom from these influencers help you prevent serious errors going forward.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.