Theatre on the retail stage: Tom Peters On Excellence

FEW READERS of this column are software designers or purchasing officers for companies on the Fortune 500 list. Most are in retail in one way or another. They work in dress shops, record stores, car body garages and restaurants. They are nurses, doctors, teachers or, like me (most of the time), seminar presenters - retailers of another sort.

If one of these activities is your career at present, consider yourself lucky. I do.

Retail, as practised by the Wal-Mart chain or Nordstrom, calls for sophisticated information systems, skill at finding the right location at the right price, and, of course, artful selection of the merchandise. Given all of that (which in itself is no small thing), the essence of retail then is theatre.

Retail, whether in the classroom or the showroom, is a performing art.

Have you ever walked on to the pitch of a football stadium just before the season begins? It is eerie in its stillness, and yet - especially if you are a former player - you can feel the emotion of the thousands of spectators who will gather there in a few weeks' time.

A shop, especially a big retail store, feels the same way at 6am. It is still and dark, except for the glow of the night lights. The merchandise casts long shadows across empty aisles. But, as with that sports venue, you can sense the tension starting to build. The coats or toys (or the pens and pencils, if it's a classroom) are stirring - awaiting the performance.

Whenever I am scheduled to speak to 17 or to 1,700 people in Miami, or Timbuktu, I like to sneak down to the slumbering conference room around 1am the night before. I can sense the spirit of the group that will assemble eight hours later.

The feeling in variably primes me to go back and do a few last preparations. In fact, such stealthy visits to deserted spaces frequently have led to a total revision of my remarks.

That's why I love retail.

Sure, I have to count on the organiser of the seminar to bring in a good crowd, to select an adequate conference facility and to get a hundred logistical details just so.

Likewise, the store clerk counts on the powers above to choose a store location that attracts customers, and to provide merchandise that sings.

But after that, it's my show, or your show. The conference hall opens, the body shop's door clanks upward, the school bell rings and we are absolutely, positively in charge.

It is our stage - and literally, not figuratively. That classroom or showroom is as much a stage as the one at the front of Carnegie Hall.

It is up to us to invest the script with life (whether a play by Ibsen, food by Chef Somebody, or the next chapter in the history textbook). It is up to us to perform - to create the emotion.

Retail is a connection business. Relationships are forged, one at a time, perhaps with an audience of 2,000, perhaps with a single car-repair customer who had a fender-bender yesterday afternoon.

The best bosses understand. They are collaborators and retailers themselves.

They are out and about, nudging and cajoling, chatting and listening - and cheering.

The worst are the wholesalers. They hide behind secretaries and assistants, behind memos and videotaped speeches to the masses. They fail to connect, to emote. Then they fail, period. (This is especially true in chaotic times like these, where retail connection alone can ease the pain of inexorable changes and dislocation).

Retailing also allows you - no, it requires you - to reinvent. Actors and actresses will tell you that every audience is different. So is every day in the classroom or the restaurant or the surgeon's office. For a great actor or actress, each day is a golden opportunity to experiment with a new approach - in fact, with nothing less than a new persona.

What are you going to be today? How are you going to connect? Today is a clean slate, a sparkling new moment. So what's your new twist?

I said great actors and actresses because, obviously, there are also average and lousy actors and actresses, just as there are average and lousy bellhops and teachers. The definition of great is, mostly, having the imagination and the zeal to re-create yourself daily.

Best of all, retail - for you or for me - is management-proof. Sure, managers make you abide by thinner or thicker rule books. Some bosses hover, some give you space. But the point is that at 10am sharp, it's your store (or at least your 75 square feet of it).

You are the absolute master, ruler, tsar. You alone bring that space, or those five restaurant tables, to life. Ninnies or saints, fearful or fearless, management can't hold you back.

If I sound like a revivalist preacher on this topic, that's because I am. And I'm in love with the boundless, albeit often squandered, potential of retail.

TPG Communications

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