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The future of retail with expert Bob Negen

Photo by Clark Street Mercantile

The retail industry was facing pressure even before the start of the pandemic as consumers shifted their purchasing behavior to digital-facing platforms. This trend has caught on even more with COVID, and traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores’ margins have taken a big hit. The pandemic has instigated changes to the retail industry that will likely become permanent, and retailers will need to continue to adapt the ways they cater to consumers in a primarily virtual world. According to retail expert and best-selling author, Bob Negen, simply being “good” isn’t merely good enough anymore. If you’re a small retailer right now, you have to be great. He calls it the “acceleration of retail.”

“If you are good, if you hustle, if you are willing to try things, if you are a smart merchant, your success is going to accelerate. People have grown more in the nine months than they would have grown in three years had the pandemic not forced them to accelerate their growth,” he said. 

Negen started his entrepreneurial journey at the age of 23 when he opened up one of the world’s very first kite stores. Over the span of two decades, Negen grew the company’s annual sales from $17,000 to over $3 million. Now he owns WhizBang Retail Training, a company that offers training programs to retailers of all sizes across a wide range of industries. 

Throughout the pandemic, WhizBang has continued to provide thousands of retailers with the opportunity to join a strong retail community and share each other’s journeys, success stories, and challenges—offering an unwavering support group to make it through the hardships of 2020. 

Negen talked with us to share his wealth of retail knowledge and explain how retailers can not only survive the pandemic but come out even stronger than before.

What inspired you to start WhizBang?

I owned my own retail business for 19 years. I started one of the world’s first kite stores. That kite store became a toy store. For 19 years, I ran and grew it. At the time, my wife Susan was a department store executive. As a trained retail executive, she came to work with my brother and I at the kite company. Eventually, we sold my share of the company to my brother and then co-founded WhizBang.

We started with bank training because there’s such a need for solid business skills in the world of independent retail. So for the last 20 years, we’ve been helping independent brick-and-mortar retailers grow successful businesses.

Bob Negen and his brother Steve in front of their first Mackinaw Kite company store in 1981

What has been the biggest change for retailers during the pandemic?

For most retailers, their business model has always been about driving traffic into the store, with a little e-commerce and a little social selling. All of a sudden, they weren’t allowed to drive traffic into the store. That caused an enormous shift in the way independent retailers do business.

Throughout the pandemic, for 11 weeks of the shutdown, I did a live social media broadcast five days a week, and we turned into a podcast. I really had my finger on the pulse of what was going on. It was just absolutely amazing how people who had been thinking about having a website all of a sudden got on it. E-commerce capability is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. The beautiful thing is that the cost of technology and the ease of use of technology has really made creating a website accessible. Years ago, you didn’t build a website. You hired somebody. And it cost a lot of money. Now people are putting together websites in literally less than a week. Why? Because they knew that they needed to. Having e-commerce is really part of what you need if you’re going to be a good retailer. 

Given the rise of digital shopping, shipping costs and delivery delays have been increasing. How can retailers improve e-commerce platforms while still maintaining good margins?

Shipping is going to be challenging. There are going to be 1,000 different disruptions, but these disruptions actually create opportunities. When talking about disrupting the supply chain and margins, the two of them go together. Recognizing that the supply chain is totally out of whack—and probably will be for who knows how long—is a problem that also represents an opportunity. It represents an opportunity because people are able to buy cheaply. Our best clients are proactively scouring not only their best vendors, but all vendors who are even remotely compatible with their merchandise mix for closeouts. 

The vendors that have supply chain issues, they also have broken runs. They are overstocked here and understocked there. They’re dealing with the exact same problems that the retailers are having. That represents an opportunity to buy at a deep discount. That’s one of the ways that you can build margin. 

Another interesting thing that’s coming from this disruption is we’re seeing a huge increase in bundles in mystery bags, mystery boxes. Assuming that the retailer is a good curator and doesn’t put crap in the box, people will trust them to put together something great. The retailer is now able to buy in bulk at a deep discount, build boxes with a high retail value, and sell at an attractive price.

Another opportunity is what we called a scattered merchandise mix. Shoe stores are selling hand sanitizer, wine stores are selling flowers. People are just finding stuff to sell with the understanding that they have a customer base that they can sell to. 

The other strategies are the ones that make it super easy for people to buy. This is why bundles are one of the great merchandising strategies this year. One of the things that I teach about bundles is this whole idea of having price points. There are three price points: good, better, best. When you have good, better, best bundles, you’re going to increase the average ticket. Because if people see these three price points, they tend to choose the bundle in the middle–it’s called Goldilocks Syndrome. “These are too big or too small. The one in the middle is just right.”

Besides prioritizing e-commerce, what are some other distribution strategies that retailers should be thinking about?

I have coined the term “omni-experiential.” This is what’s happening right now. The world of independent retail used to be store-centric. All of your marketing was designed to get people in the store and have big events. Why? Because you wanted your store to be packed with people. But now, especially this holiday season, people want to have low-touch or no-touch. They may want to support their local independent retailers, but they don’t want to go into the store. 

“Omni” is a word that means all or every. The name of the game for successful independent retailers is to let customers experience their store any way that the customer wants to. Part of it is having an in-store experience, even though that’s going to be limited. Some people don’t want it at all, so having an e-commerce presence is another way that your customers can experience your store and your brand. 

Selling on social media has come on like a freight train. It’s an incredibly important part of the “omni-experiential” future. Shopping or selling by phone and FaceTime is another one of these ways that you let your customers experience your store. Buy online pick up at the store (BOPIS). Curbside pickup. The point is—it’s not just coming into the store. It’s “you want to support me. Great. Let’s talk about how we can.”

The important thing is that all your strategies support each other. I’ll give you an example. One of our Platinum Mastermind Group members has 10 stores on the Delaware shore. She does a Facebook Live every day at noon. Then she sells items based on what customers request in the comments section. At three o’clock in the afternoon, she takes a recording of that same Facebook Live and puts it on her website so that different people are able to buy from it. Customers can have items shipped, pick up curbside, all of it. All of these experiences are brand consistent, and they all support each other.

Where do you think the retail industry is headed?

What is happening right now is the acceleration of retail. What I mean by that is, if you are good, if you hustle, if you are willing to try things, if you are a smart merchant, your success is going to accelerate. People have grown as far as their skills, their business models, their resilience more in nine months than they would have grown in three years had the pandemic not forced them to accelerate their growth. On the flip side, all of the merchants who froze—who are just merely hoping that things will get back to the way that they were—their failure is going to be accelerated. This time of uncertainty has accelerated everything. If you’re going to be good, you’re going to be really good. If you’re gonna be bad. You’re gonna be really bad.

There is a tremendous silver lining. This thing is awful. The pandemic absolutely sucks. People are being forced to grow at a rate they’re not comfortable with, but they’re still being forced to grow. From an alert, neurological perspective, people’s brains are being rewired in a way that they don’t even understand. People are coming out of this more skilled, more resilient. Once you’re done with this, when life gets back to normal, you’re going to be a world beater. You’ll say, “Yeah, okay. I did that. I can do anything. Definitely.” And you’ll have the skills to do it. I think that’s a self-report from a retailer’s perspective.

How has WhizBang been able to serve its community during these times?

To speak to a community when times are uncertain, when there is fear, and when there is a lot of stress, people need a couple of things. They need leadership, and they need somebody to tell them that it’s going to be okay. They need inspiration. They need to feel inspired to keep going. They need ideas to implement to keep them moving. 

For 11 weeks, we did that podcast. We’re starting it again next week with a goal of going through the holidays. That’s another 11 weeks, every weekday at 9:30 am. I’m going to go live on all the major social media chat channels and spend about 15 minutes talking about where we are. Facebook is our primary free community channel. It’s called WhizBang Retailers. People come with their problems. People want to know that they’re not in it alone. People want to come with questions and have them answered. People want ideas, they want inspiration, they want support. When times get uncertain, it becomes more important than ever. 

The other encouraging thing that I see is that people are really starting to understand how important their local businesses are. I’ve always been a supporter of my local businesses, but I’ve never necessarily been an enthusiastic supporter of the shop local movement. I think that people sort of thought that movement tried to intellectualize why people should shop locally, to almost guilt people into it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like it. But my perspective was always that people should shop local because local is the best option. 

What has happened now is more than just an intellectual understanding that money is leaving the community if you shop on Amazon. All of a sudden, people are looking at their local business community and going, “Holy sh*t. If I don’t support these people, they’re not going to be here. So I better let my dollars speak.” And I think that’s a huge thing. 

WhizBang! Retail Training was started by Bob Negen, a worldwide retail expert and speaker. Through WhizBang, Negen shares his own expertise, providing retail store owners with up-to-date tips, tactics, and techniques through group speaking sessions, one-on-one coaching programs, social media, and weekly newsletters. Its flagship product, the Retail Mastery System, offers a comprehensive training program for independent brick-and-mortar retailers all around the world. With over 25 hours of training video content, the Retail Mastery System covers 11 critical business skills that a retailer should have to attain Negen’s same benchmark successranging from marketing and selling tactics to inventory and financial management skills. 

WhizBang throws its annual Retail Success Summit where retailers gather at the world’s largest educational event for independent retailers. The event is being held virtually this year. For more information and resources, you can visit WhizBang’s Products page for a comprehensive list of mentor and training programs. 

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