Sometimes Industry Needs a Crisis

Some businesses continue to moan about the impact the internet is having on their profitability, and in some cases viability.

I listened to a lively discussion on the radio this morning with representatives from the book trade on how they are trying to deal with those annoying people who are ‘skim-browsing’ in their shops, checking online prices and then walking out without buying anything. The literary equivalent of what shoe and clothing shops face. The fight back in the clothing sector is underway and some retailers are asking people to leave their stores, others are refusing to serve before a ‘trying-on fee’ is paid (and reimbursed if the items are subsequently purchased). Sound odd to you? It does to me.

It’s understandable to be annoyed; you have invested capital, trained your staff and will no doubt be paying handsomely for a high street presence – only to see it being used and abused by people who had no intention of buying from you.  What can businesses who have invested in bricks and mortar do to retain market share and not loose their business entirely? Especially if you cannot compete on price?

This reminded me of a challenge facing travel agents who were looking to claw back market share against what seemed to be the unstoppable tide of online travel sales. They faced the problem of people stopping by to get as much advice and information as they could from the agent, before going online and buying their holiday from the plethora of airlines, tickets agents, accommodation and comparison websites. Their instinct too, had been to call for new pricing structures.

Then came a big wobble in the tourism market around 2009 and some airlines, online travel portals and booking websites went to the wall. Bad news for them, but even worse for their customers as many were stranded in far off shores with local suppliers refusing to honour bookings or were simply struggling to get home. The problem was that this new trend of being your own travel agent exposed the customer, when things went wrong, to the reality of no protection.

This prompted a light-bulb moment amongst travel trade: Customers would pay for peace-of-mind. They will also pay for expert knowledge and reassurance that their purchase wouldn’t expose them to risk of staying in a partially built hotel next to a swamp for example, or in an unsuitable resort –  the security of knowing that if something went wrong, they only had one number to call to make alternative arrangements or to get them home again.

And that is what customer service is all about: peace-of-mind all wrapped up with premium product knowledge that cannot ever compare with doing-it-yourself online.

We don’t all shop online all of the time. It has it’s place and it’s convenient sure, but I wonder if those annoying people who use book shops to ‘check out the goods’ before buying online, really were customers? Of where they simply skim-browsing because that’s all they thought there was to do in store?

I smell an opportunity.

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