In 1999, Canada’s iconic retailer, Eaton’s, went down for the final time. It was a sad inevitability for a retailer who first became irrelevant, then tried to save themselves with a poorly executed repositioning.
Thirteen years later, another ancient Canadian retailer – the oldest commercial corporation in North America -seems destined for the same fate. Hudson’s Bay Company is desperately trying to reinvent their flagship department store chain, The Bay.The deja vuis painful to watch. I thought it was as bad as it could get, but they’ve just taken it to a new lowby trying to replace living, breathing, trained and motivated employees with cyber-salespeople. An automated greeter will now be your first impression of the store- a lifelike avatar designed to catch your attention.
The Bay’s attempt to turn things aroundbegan with bringing in Bonnie Brooks as President and CEO. No mistake there, it would seem. Ms. Brooks has a remarkable pedigree for fashion retailing and innovation. But I have to wonder if this may notturn out to be a dark moment in an otherwise brilliant career. Becausesince she’s been on board, the decisions The Bay has made have been inexplicable at best.
One of their first decisions was to reposition the stores as high-end fashion retailers – just as Eaton’s did in between bankruptcies. Bad strategy? No matter, I thought. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they’ll get it right.
If The Bay has upscaled, it has only been in the minds of the people in the boardroom. Perhaps the product has changed, but the experience has not. Customers still need to go on safari to find an employee; and once found, still have to beg for help. And the likelihood of finding an employee who actually knows the inventory is almost zero. This isn’t a knock on the employees, mind you, they can only do what they can do. It’s a knock on an organization who under-staffs, under-trains and under-cares about their customers.
I’ve been in a dozen Bays since the repositioning, and I’m convinced the experience is actually getting worse. Given the many dozens of unsolicited comments I’ve received over the last couple of years, I don’t think I’m alone.
The Bay wants to wade in the waters with higher-end fashion retailers, but doesn’t want to deliver the same personalized experience.They somehow believe customers will accept this. They somehow believe that people will be willing to paya premium price for a substandard experience. Newsflash to The Bay. You can put chocolate icing on a cinder-block, but that doesn’t make it chocolate cake. You can’t pretend to reposition yourself and expect customers to buy into your fantasy. Either you’re in, or you’re out. And right now, you’re out.
Rather than do what they need to do – fill the stores with bright, motivated, trained salespeople; merchandise with creativity and panache; ensure that customers are swept away with the experience- they’ve decided to just get cutesy by bringing in a few robots.
Maybe, they’re thinking, customers won’t notice that there are no human beings around to help them. Maybe customers won’t notice that theexperience at the cash registerhasn’t changed. Maybe they won’t notice the ‘high-end’ fashion strewn about the neglected departments. Maybe customers won’t realize there are dozens of other retailers out there selling the same merchandise but providing a profoundly more enjoyable experience.
Yes, well… Maybe in a couple of years customers won’t notice the giant empty spaces in the malls with the ‘for lease’ signs out front…