Friday, May 29, 2009

Would you like pantyhose with that ceiling tile? (and other retail oxymorons)

Perhaps you were taught this instructive “stick-to-your-knitting” story of some years ago. It starred an over-eager Home Depot executive who came up with the idea that millions would drop to the bottom line if only the company could see its way to introducing L’Eggs hosiery displays at checkouts in all its stores. After making his case to the top ranks of the company with a convincing argument about potential financial gain and a not-very-convincing plea for the company to use this as a response to the increasing presence of female customers, he was quickly asked to abandon the idea—of course, right after being told to abandon his seat from the meeting. The teachable moment—seized on by the chairman—was that just because you could sell it doesn’t mean you should sell it.

Apparently not everyone has heard this entrenched business lesson—including some more recent Home Depot executives, who two years ago brought about losses with a similarly ill-fated decision to sell flat-screen televisions during the holidays.

This week, Best Buy announced plans to sell patio ware—furniture, fire pits, grills and heaters. It’s their attempt to make up for lost sales in bread-and-butter categories like movies and music.

This has all the makings to be the pantyhose story of 2009. We’ll be watching this one especially closely, as this is a retailer which has done many things right.

Supermarkets used to fall prey all the time to the allure of selling higher-margin items—that turned out not to sell, like television sets.

A recent sighting of candy bars at the checkout of a garden center store struck me as a stretch, and a rather sad attempt to presumably get something back from a decline in boxwood sales.

Unexpected products in the assortment can delight customers. Urban Outfitters does serendipity masterfully. Probably until it was deemed illegal or immoral, Sears stores used to create endless Easter excitement with displays of live baby chicks…..for sale. But these examples are schtick—not fundamental assortment strategies.
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