Interview with Doug Fleener: Retail Tips from the Experts

From time to time, we reach outside the dive industry to ask experts in related fields to give us tips and suggestions that apply to what it is we do. It’s always interesting to hear about trends in education, business development, human resource management and marketing from people working in other industries and it’s refreshing to get a different perspective on the challenges associated with running a business like a dive operation where multi-tasking is so vital to success.

In our world, to make a good living, the majority of us have essentially to run an adult education facility, a retail store, rental shop, equipment service department, travel agency and information booth! That’s a tall order without some outside help. This month we contacted an expert retail consultant: Doug Fleener.

Doug Fleener heads up Dynamic Experiences Group, a Lexington, Massachusetts based retail and customer experience consulting firm. We figured that he would have some good quick tips to share since his career has been dedicated to helping retailers increase their sales and profits by improving customer experiences both in store and “out there in the new retailing reality,” as he puts it.

That new reality is what Fleener calls “the adaptive challenge,” for 21st century retailers. “It does not matter what market segment you’re in,” he says. “The new reality is a bricks and mortar base working hand-in-hand with an online presence.” Without both working in conjunction, and without both “focused heavily on the customer and not the product,” Fleener says the outlook in this current economy will be bleak.

If there’s a simply maxim for making the most of the current situation, according to Fleener, it’s really all about maximizing customer opportunities and working on providing the very best customer experience. He says that experience can simply be focused on finding out what your customers really want and providing it for them with the minimum of fuss and maximum of service and support.

It can also be focused on providing what he refers to as a Memorable Moment. He relates a story used in one of his many articles and books on successful retailing.

“A few winters ago, my friend told me about an incredible "Wow" he received while on a business trip. One morning he looked outside and saw that it had snowed a few inches overnight. As he left his hotel, The Residence Inn in Dedham, my friend was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hotel staff had gone out that morning and cleared off every car in the lot. That’s not a wow. Not even a Wow. That is a WOW! When Craig went back in to thank the hotel staff he was told it was the assistant manager idea to do it. I say, promote that person!”

Fleener says that through such a really simple gesture towards his guests, the assistant hotel manager created a huge amount of goodwill.

“Think about this,” he adds. “The first thing Craig did was to call and tell me about it. Then he told his wife when he talked to her. Then he told every client he saw that day. A simple act of kindness resulted in Craig telling a handful of people about the hotel. There is no doubt where Craig will stay on his next business trip to that area. There is a good chance that the people to whom he told the story will mention that hotel to someone they know who is planning a trip to the area. And Craig was just one of many guests who were WOWed by this act of kindness. The assistant manager created the most powerful marketing tool there is: a Memorable Moment.”

Fleener tells us all to try to provide our customers with a “Wow” moment. It could be something as simple as giving the inside of a drysuit a good rinse and dry after replacing a worn zipper. No matter how simple, or how seemingly small a gesture (free hot chocolate and muffins at an open water checkout), “it will pay you back many fold with your customers in the future,” he says.

“One constant challenge,” in Fleener’s eyes, “is for a retailer to be focused and creative enough to double or triple QUALITY traffic marching into their store.” Doubling or tripling the people coming through your door is, he admits, tough. One way to push the name and attract more people is to “host events and promotions.” This, he says, is an effective promotion for your store, your products, your staff and as an added bonus shows attendees what you’re made of when it comes to providing that “all important” customer experience.

Drysuit demos, rebreather demos, try-dives, equipment workshops, presentations on local dive sites or exotic dive trips, pumpkin carving, treasure hunts, anything that gives you a chance to meet, greet, and share a hotdog with customers and prospective customers earns points according to Fleener. He says that you have to give customers a reason apart from making a purchase to “talk and ask questions!” Events create what Fleener calls “purchase intent and curiosity.” And curiosity can often be transformed into a sale and a happy customer.

“One reason to focus on getting quality traffic into store is that retail traffic is down generally,” he says. “And the price of the average ticket is down and margins are lower…” With this combination, he points out that pushing for more volume is vital.

Another challenge is that the retail sector generally and the dive industry specifically is going through a period when tighter inventory controls usually mean less inventory in stock. “Ironically, you must make displays look full,” he says. “Merchandising means visual impact and full fixtures,” he says.

Fleener, a diver himself with a brother “who used to be in the industry,” gives one “big tip” about merchandising in a dive store.

“Please,” he says. “Please promote OUTCOMES with pictures and other visuals.” He says that pictures about diving and that show what diving is all about, smiling faces and thrilling underwater scenes should replace the diagram showing the exploded view of a balanced regulator. “Put testimonials on the wall from people who have taken a course with you, who you’ve helped acquire diving skills and who left with a sense of accomplishment. Copy and enlarge letters from customers who have been blown away by diving… because that’s what diving is… a THRILL,” he says.

“In most stores the retailer should identify at least two primary merchandising areas. These areas must communicate the message you want your customers to get. Change the displays regularly.” How often depends on several factors Fleener explains. “But a regular customer should not see the same display on their third visit!”

He also explains that displays should send a clear message what your store is about. If your store is value oriented then the display must scream: Discount. If you are into new technology, then show the latest and greatest. If your local diving is on wrecks, your displays should tell that story. You’re into photography, then show pictures and cameras. “Use in-store merchandising to get your personal message across,” he says.

One other important piece of advice is that while your displays must be impressive and full, they should not crowd the retail floor completely. “Dedicate an area to seating,” he says. “Use that space to talk training. Use it as a spot to build good things around the customer’s time in your shop. Don’t talk to them across a counter… in fact you should never be behind the counter unless you’re ringing in a sale!”

And talking about ringing in a sale, Fleener says that is an important part of the whole customer experience. “It’s great for the retailer, but is it great for your customer as well?”

Fleener asks what does your customer look at when they’re waiting for their credit card voucher to be processed or for you to make change.

“If it’s a picture that shows the outcome of buying dive gear or taking training; or if it shows the joys of diving my hat’s off to you.” But, he continues, if your customer sees your return policy or a hand-done poster telling him you do not take out of state check, “Give yourself a slap.”

 There are, according to Fleener, many ways to boost the customer experience. They all take work and some creative effort. But, he says, the results are worth it. In a single segment retail operation, milestones to success are often measured in inventory turns (and in sporting goods that’s consistently 2.7 to 2.5 turns a year according to data from the Retail Owner’s Institute) or annual return per square foot ($1000 in an urban mall Apple Store). But Fleener suggests a slightly different benchmark. “Set yourself a simple daily goal,” he advises. “Try to make at least one customer today leave your store with a WOW experience. Tomorrow, try for two…”

Doug Fleener is a veteran retailer with over 25 years of hands-on retail experience with world-class retailers including Bose Corporation and The Sharper Image. He has also owned and operated his own specialty stores. In his ten years at Bose, Doug grew the Retail Direct Group from four to 100 stores and was instrumental in developing Bose’s unique and engaging retail methods.

Fleener is president and managing partner of Dynamic Experiences Group LLC, of Lexington, MA, and the well-respected author of the book The Profitable Retailer: 56 surprisingly simple and effective lessons to boost your sales and profits.

He is a frequent speaker around the world on retail issues and his insights has been covered in leading business media including The New York Times, Entrepreneur, and Shopping Centers Today. Along with partner Matt Norcia they write the popular retail blog Retail Contrarian.

Doug Fleener lives in Lexington, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters, where in his free time he barbecues while listening to Jimmy Buffet music.

Learn more at or call him at 866-535-6331.

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