Seven Deadly Sins of Retail Laggards

By: Laura Davis-Taylor, EVP, Customer Experience

[fontspecial]Enough Already.[/fontspecial]

For years we’ve been talking about the train coming that is now steamrolling some of our country’s most iconic retail brands. I fully blame the leaders at the top of each and every company that is spiraling into oblivion. They were warned and they didn’t listen. I don’t know if it’s due to arrogance or ignorance, but the outcome is the same and the implications are monumental.

It is not new news that life has changed and, with it, shoppers. The state of retail is now evolve or die. The ‘brand brave hearts’ that understand this are inventing new paradigms every day, using the dogma of old school retail leadership as a blueprint for what NOT to do. Simultaneously, much of today’s legacy brass is bowing down to short-term profits rather than long-term evolution and sustainability.

“How can this be?” we all ask. How can such issues, plainly apparent to the rest of us, be ignored at the peril of the company?

Having been in these trenches for a very long time, here are my observations on the 7 Deadly Sins of retail leadership

  1. Arrogance. It’s the only path that they know, thus the only path that exists.
  2. Selfishness. Retirement is coming and the short-term balance sheet is all that matters to get that bonus and get out while there’s still time. To them, this storm is someone else’s problem.
  3. Complacency. It’s too late. The ship is too huge, as are the problems. The time to start changing how they think, work together, plan their offensive moves, reward brave thinking and evolve was years ago.
  4. Nepotism. A systematic belief that talent should always be cultivated and elevated from within based on an outdated set of leadership screeners and company ‘fit’, rather than subject matter expertise, vision and the guts to challenge norms. As a result, everything remains the same.
  5. Narcissism. Rather than caring about the customer first and foremost, decisions are based on the retailer’s image, their needs, what they want from the customer and how to get it from them for their own purposes—regardless of the true cost. By blatantly ignoring the actual customer needs, truths are now easily unearthed and trust is the cost.
  6. Apathy. They are unable—and unwilling—to get inside of the shoes of their customers, to listen, to understand, to respond and to create checkpoint methods for success. Also they have an innate inability to grasp that this as an ongoing, iterative process.
  7. Ignorance. Looking at what is happening from a narrow 4 Ps/transactional perspective, not the wide-angle lens of what is happening in the world, within culture, at retail as a whole and within their category. Thus strategies and decisions are uninformed by critical influencers, easily disrupted by competition.

[fontspecial]The Path to Change[/fontspecial]

Like most business challenges, people are the center of the problem—but they are also the way forward. But they must change, and change is hard.

The psychology community has a fairly standard viewpoint on the phases of change, steps that are often employed for helping addicts. It’s uncanny how applicable they are in relation to retail change management, and it starts with admitting that you have a problem. Here are the Six Stages to address the “Seven Deadlies.” Think about them as they apply to retail’s current predicament.



People in the precontemplation stage are not even thinking about changing their behavior. They often don’t see it as a problem and when people point out the truths, they are met with anger and/or denial. This is a special challenge when the people closest to the issues (and potential solutions) could lose their jobs with their honesty, yet they are often the people that care the most.   


At this stage, people are willing to consider the possibility that challenges exist and there’s hope for change. However, they are often ambivalent and on the fence—there is not yet a commitment or a decision.


This is when reality is embraced and the brutal truths are attacked head on. Risks and rewards are actively addressed and even though fear is present, planning and a commitment to action is made.


This is where the rubber meets the road. Plans are made public and support teams are put in place to make them happen and keep everyone on track. Support is critical, as it not only helps all involved stay on course, but it also creates external monitors. Others are watching and cheering but naysayers now become vocal. Unfazed by them, pleasure is derived from disproving their negative predictions and success becomes apparent. Hope and self-confidence is restored and continued determination is solidified.


New thinking and patterns of behaviors now become ingrained and leadership preaches, nurtures, sustains and rewards them. The threat of a return to old patterns becomes less intense and less frequent.


Now there is no threat of returning to old patterns and temptations. There is complete confidence with no fear of relapse.

[fontspecial]The Story in my Head is...[/fontspecial]

As an Experience Designer, I have to be a human anthropologist. As a guerrilla anthropologist, I also have to understand psychology. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard from a psychologist to convey key points to someone without shutting them down is to begin with, “The story in my head is…”

So, the story in my head as it pertains to the ‘now and next’ for retail leadership is:

“I know this is a scary time and every move you make is public and rife with monumental implications. I get it. But I want the same things that you do—a successful business outcome. My fear is that we aren’t going to get there because you believe you have all the answers and won’t open your mind to hearing others. This is true when it comes to your management teams, but just as importantly with your customers. Are you talking to them? Are you listening? I mean really listening? Do you care and are you proving it by your actions? Are you doing things to fix their issues while anticipating how to delight them? Are you thinking about offensive plans, disruptors and new paradigms? Are you fostering and applauding new thinking? Are you doing this through your own self-references or through a holistic, global world view?

I believe in your ability to be successful. I believe in your ability to change. I want you on the cover of Fast Company talking about how you did it, not theories to the cause of your demise. Please, please…take action while there’s still time. You can be great again and there is a way! But you have to go back to the basic understanding that it’s about people. Care about people, do the right thing by them, make them feel valued, give them value and do unique things that they love and you will earn the ultimate reward—their irrational loyalty.”

In the words of Jeffery Sears, CEO of Pirch and a shining light in retail, “every customer that walks into my store is a gift and a privilege.” He believes in focusing not on what you do as a retailer, but why. But to do so means starting at Ground Zero and questioning every single thing. By the way, Pirch is the 2nd most successful retailer regarding sales per square foot, does no advertising and has an average store visit of 2 hours.

I love retail. My company loves retail. So much so that one of our key monikers is our commitment to “make everyone fall in love with shopping a little more.”

Please retail leadership, don’t let this downward trend keep spiraling. We want to help. Come with us—let’s face this thing and, together, let’s pave a new outcome.