The following is an insight-packed interview with Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender, experts on generational diversity, consumer trends, marketing and promotion, and everything retail. With over 30 years of experience under their belt, Rich and Georganne have helped thousands of businesses in the retail, creative, restaurant, healthcare, hospitality, travel, tech, auto, and other industries.
Day by day, Rich and Georganne stalk and study that most elusive of mammals: today's consumer. Today they share their expert opinion on the vital components of customer experience, retail trends, and crucial transformations happening in the industry. Let's dive in!

1. In 2021, you celebrate 31 years as a speaking team which sounds pretty amazing! How did this journey start for you?

We both held executive positions at a retail company that owned several different franchise companies. Rich was in marketing and real estate, and Georganne in visual merchandising and store design. Our company held huge, well-attended trade shows for the franchisees twice each year. At one show, Rich was doing a presentation on marketing and Georganne - on visual merchandising when the meeting planner asked if we would do a presentation together. Why not, we said, and the rest is history.

We were intrepreneurs who ultimately became entrepreneurs. While still at our corporate jobs, we began building in-store events and promotions in our spare time, just for fun. They took off, making a significant amount of money for both the franchisees and the company. This created both a problem and an opportunity for us. Enthused at first, some members of top management became threatened by our retail adventures, so we eventually left to start our own company. Since then, our company, KIZER & BENDER Speaking!, has focused on ways to help retailers become even more successful. We speak, write, study consumers, and do a lot of store makeovers.

2. Recollecting all of these years, what critical stages for retail can you name?

We are going to age ourselves here! We remember when cellphones were giant boxes you carried in shoulder bags, when fax machines were pure magic, and what it was like to do business before email – we've seen lots of change.

We have helped retailers through slow economic times, sharing strategies to build sales and manage inventory turn. We were there when big box stores put independents out of business all over the country – that's when we turned our focus to helping independent retailers. When the internet came on the scene, we pivoted to help retailers focus on the in-store experience while creating a strong online presence.

The Great Recession of 2008 was tough for retailers and for our business, too, but we made it through. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on so many. When it hit,our nicely fully speaking calendar cleared in an afternoon, we immediately began offering complimentary webinars, articles, and coaching calls to retailers. We started our Retail Adventures Podcast. For months our days were filled with conversations with panicked retailers who were terrified they would lose their businesses – we were too. But we dug in, figured out how to do Facebook Live, and encouraged retailers to jump in with both feet. Most of these businesses survived, ours included, and some even made more via Facebook Live than they did before the pandemic. Eventually, our calendar filled with virtual presentations, and in August, we hit the road again for live trade shows. We can't wait!

3. And back to our days, how would you describe the impact that CV-19 produced on retail and its players?

COVID-19 obviously had a negative effect on retailers but also created a positive force. It was hard to close stores, but it made retailers better, stronger, as they were forced to come up with new ways to do business.

The customer was still there, but we needed to pivot to reach them. Curbside, BOPIS, home delivery, selling on social media, personal shopping via phone and Zoom, events and classes held on Zoom – the industry got creative! We constantly encouraged the retailers we worked with and who followed us to keep the merchandise presentation on their sales floors fresh, even when they were closed. Some did full store makeovers, others changed the displays at the front of the store weekly, even though they could only be viewed through the windows. COVID-19 was hell on retail, but those who stayed focused made it through. We still have many conversations each week with retailers on their continued progress. We are well known for our willingness to help where we can. That's been our promise to indie retailers for each of our 31 years.

4. In your opinion, what technologies does post-COVID retail urgently need nowadays?

Well, of course, it's all about data, what you collect and what you do with it. A strong inventory control system is critical to stay on top of inventory turn and margin maximization. But as consumer anthropologists, we tend to look at everything that happens in-store and online from the consumers' perspective.

Consumers don't care about some of the technologies retailers think are important. Still, they do care about those that make their lives easier, like mobile payment options and shopping via social media. They will love the Caper shopping carts at Kroger that allow you to shop, bag and pay for your purchase all on the cart. "What's in it for me" is important on the sales floor.

5. How do you think the role of physical stores changed after the pandemic? Besides brick-and-mortar, should retailers develop any other touchpoints with their consumers?

Our clients went into the pandemic as brick and mortar retailers and came out with online stores as well – that's not going to change. But the physical retail store is more important than ever because still consumers crave an in-person experience. They want stores that are well-merchandised with curated assortments and sales floor that are both easy and fun to shop. They want no-hassle returns and fair return policies.

Shopping is still more than shopping; it's entertainment. Retailers don't just sell stuff; they are fulfilling dreams. That shopper who carries an armload of dresses into the fitting room could be leisurely shopping or buying a dress to wear to her daughter's wedding. Every customer encounter is an opportunity to impact someone's life.

6. As consumer anthropologists, what do you consider the main components of a great customer experience? How would you define the role of the price here?

When we visit stores, we look at three things:

1. The Enablers, the important but often overlooked things that allow customers to shop comfortably. Enablers make shoppers feel welcome: Think displays and signing that attract attention, carts and baskets that do the heavy lifting, clear, easy-to-navigate aisles, easy-to-read price labels, and strong displays that make shoppers excited to interact with the merchandise, and most importantly, buy. Friendly and knowledgeable store associates play a big role here, too.

2. The Inhibitors, the shopper-stoppers that disrupt the buying experience. Good examples include empty fixtures, messy/unorganized displays, products that are stacked too high, or perfect displays they are afraid to touch. The Inhibitors give us a strong indication of how well the store is run.

3. The Impression Points begin outside of the store – sometimes even in the parking lot – and continue throughout the sales floor. Impression Points create the perceptions customers carry with them as they shop your store and contribute to what they share with friends afterward. They create customer Moments of Truth – aha moments, both good and bad. A typical visit to a store could result in 25+ Moments of Truth.

7. According to Gartner analysts, real-time personalized pricing is one of the key customer experience expectations in the near future. Do you find it important for future sustainable growth?

Splurge pricing is becoming popular in Las Vegas casino shops. Prices rise at peak times, and customers have taken to Twitter to discuss it. They aren't fans. From a retailer perspective, personalized pricing can be a good thing, but from consumers' point of view, not so much. Why should one customer have to pay more for an item based on their purchase history when the next customer saves 10 percent on the same item? When people feel they're being taken advantage of, they tend to take their business elsewhere.

8. Lately, numerous business and retail-focused media have been buzzing a lot about the new, post-COVID reality and its new trends. But from media to media, opinions differ a lot. As consumer research enthusiasts, what post-pandemic consumer trends do you find the most meaningful and long-lasting? And what are just short-term fads?

Any service that makes life easier isn't going anywhere. Conveniences like BOPIS, curbside pick-up, and personal shopper services will be with us forever. Now, we have store-hailing, an Uber-like service for retail. Consumers call and a store on wheels pulls up, and they make their purchases at the curb, without any interaction with the driver.

One of the things predicted was how deeply the average retail sales floor would change. Some reports predicted that all stores would become wide open spaces with just samples of each item on display; the rest of the goods would be housed in the stock room. The people predicting this have obviously never visited the stock rooms of average stores – they're tiny.

But retail's physical space has evolved during the pandemic. We learned that frequent changes to the sales floor are more important than ever. As customers return to shopping, they are craving the in-store experiences they have missed and are excited for new adventures as well. A continual refresh of a store's lake front property – the up-front, most visible shopping areas on the sales floor – requires weekly change. In some stores even more frequently.

9. What piece of advice can you give to every aspiring retailer that strives to reorganize pre-pandemic business?

Just go for it! The best changes often happen under duress. We worked with independent retailers who had been stuck in ruts for years only to rise up and take control like never before. These retailers had skin in the game. They weren't just worried about losing a job, they were worried about losing everything. They just went for it, trying new things weekly. If something worked, they kept it, if it didn't, they made changes or moved on to something else. So much great creativity happened at retail in the last 15 months. Fast, creative change is what won the day during the height of the pandemic.
 

Stay tuned for the upcoming episodes of Competera's Interview Series!