Conducting communications for retail businesses has always been a complicated task, but in light of recent headwinds facing the industry, it has never been more important to the success in the sector. If storefronts continue to close at their current rate, walking down Madison Avenue or driving through the local mall could look very different in coming years.

It is a daunting time for retailers as traditional brick-and-mortar stores confront fundamental challenges from online retailers like Amazon, a years-long decline in foot traffic at malls and shopping centers, and store closings among household names like Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney. Further challenges lie ahead if Congress advances its proposed Border Adjustment Tax policy, which will weigh heavily on import-reliant retailers.

With these difficulties in mind, here are some core priorities a retailer must emphasize in its external communications in order to attract customers and demonstrate an effective management strategy to the business’s stakeholders:

  • Differentiate – Retailers need to establish what sets their brand apart, and create a compelling reason for customers to visit their store or website. Ultimately, the retail business model revolves around the consumer, and most other corporate communications issues resolve themselves so long as customers are walking through the door. In explaining several recent bankruptcies, analysts have often cited a brand’s no longer standing for anything as a reason for the company’s fall.
  • Stay Ahead of Trends – The retailers having the most trouble in today’s climate are traditional brick and mortar clothing stores, while “fast-fashion” brands like Zara are thriving. Quick response strategies minimize the time between design and production, allowing fast-fashion retailers to place new items on their shelves rapidly. From a communications perspective, retailers need to be able to stay ahead of new trends, and promote product transitions seamlessly.
  • Multichannel Audience – Amazon and online shopping is a leading driver of the industry’s distress. To remain competitive, retailers must be able to sell their products via their websites, harnessing new media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat to promote their products. It is essential to have a communications strategy that drives sales at both online and brick-and-mortar venues.

Communications for retail businesses are challenging not only because these obstacles are complex, but because there are multiple constituencies that need to be addressed. A company’s brand has to entice consumers to make purchases, while the business must simultaneously address the concerns of shareholders, vendors, lenders, employees and landlords. Too often, these separate audiences hear conflicting messages about the stores’ success and viability.

When a retailer is in trouble, it is difficult to find a balance among the competing priorities of encouraging customers to buy products, assuring employees of job security, and convincing vendors to continue product shipments, while simultaneously communicating with lenders and landlords about financial troubles and payment shortfalls.

The critical component is to understand that these communications need to be carefully planned in advance, and can’t be implemented on the fly. An experienced public relations firm can help a retailer identify when which parties need to be told what, and then orchestrate a coordinated response.

Centralizing communications efforts through an agency will ensure that reporters calling with questions will be given consistent replies, and that store managers will be working from the same script when delivering news to employees.  In addition to having resources like established media relationships and specialized writing skills, an outside PR firm can also act as an honesty-broker, a checkpoint to ensure a company’s communications remain trustworthy and credible.

Successful retail communications rely on emphasizing a business’s strengths to the right audiences, regardless of how well the company is doing. If a retailer can’t articulate its story and what distinguishes it from its competitors, not only will it be ineffective in marketing its brand to consumers, it won’t be able to convey its strategy to stakeholders.

– Doug Allen

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Updated on 5/22/2017