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Happy (or Horrible?) Holidays
by Lynda A. Gutierrez

The holidays are right on our doorstep, their metaphorical hands raised to ring the bell. And many of us are more than half-tempted to crouch out of sight in the vain hope that they’ll go away. It’s not that we don’t love these annual winter visitors; it’s just that after a year of embracing frugality, the excesses that the holidays demand – however merrily – feel more a burden than a joy.

Naturally (however longingly they might entertain the thought) few will actually turn their backs on the holiday season. But their welcome will, in most American homes this year, be a touch more restrained.

Restraint, of course, is a concept that sets retailers shaking in their boots at any time of the year. And that doesn’t just go double during the holidays – it’s multiplied. Exponentially. After all, retail flourishes on joyous abandon. It survives when shopping is fun and consumers impulsive. But it looks down the barrel of economic ruin when shoppers are cautious even when buying what they absolutely need.

Because the holidays have always been crucial to retailers’ bottom lines, stores have traditionally gone all out to entice shoppers during the season in which almost every one of them is obligated to splash out on bagfuls of purchases that are, strictly speaking,“unnecessary.”

But this year retailers are going to have to find and tap hidden reserves of persuasion, raid some secret stash of charm, and practice every trick in the book (which, hopefully is one of magic.) Just running sales will simply not suffice; this year, they’ll be a baseline expectation. Customer service will certainly be vital, as never before. After all, pleasant, respectful, knowledgeable and efficient sales help will go a long way toward soothing the anxiety today’s consumers feel when handing over their cash (or mortgaging their future with credit.)

But retailers with any aspirations of survival will need to go further still. Their entire shopping experience will have to sparkle. Greeters should set the tone, set the stage, that this is a place where problems can be solved, where inconveniences will be smoothly swept away, where shoppers will get the most for their time, money and energy. (These implied promises must, of course, be lived up to through the efforts of every floor level worker.)

And, ideally, the floor level workers should include Store Management. Not only will their presence keep staff on their toes but a bit of executive-level bonhomie and problem-solving could do wonders to make shoppers feel valued, cherished and happy. And cheerful customers make cash registers ring.

It’s just possible that the holidays of 2009 won't be as horrible as the doomsayers say. With a little extra effort, and a whole lot of luck, it just might end up being a (reasonably) happy holiday after all.



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