ATG Editor Ivan Macquisten reports on the experts’ advice to the trade at this year’s LAPADA conference
When LAPADA dealers get together for a bit of retail therapy their focus is very much on selling rather than buying.
What is the best way to present your stock in your gallery or at a fair? How do you convert browsers into buyers? How do you bridge the culture gap between countries to ensure effective business deals?
These were just some of the topics covered by the line-up of experts booked to speak at this year's LAPADA Conference on February 24 at the House of Lords in London.
It was another highly successful day, challenging delegates to rethink their business strategies, and proved a fitting swansong for retiring chief executive Sarah Percy-Davis, who has done so much to raise the bar of these events in recent years.
Former Marks & Spencer executive chairman Sir Stuart Rose was booked as the main act for the afternoon, but retail psychologist Philip Graves, an alumnus of a previous conference, paved the way with an insightful session on human behaviour and how to capitalise on it in the shopping environment.
He started by dividing shoppers into three types: the loyal fan, the motivated goal-driven shopper and the casual browser, before exploring what made people spend once they entered a store.
Research showed that it was more effective to ask people leaving stores why they hadn't bought anything than to ask them on the way in what it was they wanted to buy.
"Asking customers questions is a pretty futile way to find out what they want. Study their behaviour instead," he advised.
"What matters is what people do, not what they say when you ask them."
Creating the right conditions in your gallery or on your stand are essential to success.
Layout, decor, lighting and display should all create a sense of expectation and surprise, as well as sparking curiosity. But customers should also feel welcome and comfortable, so that they spend more time browsing. Stands and gallery displays should also be focused.
You have to treat customers like ten year olds - they can be impulsive, and get bored and tired easily. Make it easy for them and they are more likely to buy.
Graves showed how techniques used by big brands, such as renewing or rearranging window and aisle displays on a regular basis, refreshed the public's interest. Too often, high street antiques shops failed to do this, he said, leaving passers-by with the impression of stasis.
"Price is a lever that is used too often by retailers," he added. Instead it is important to create a sense of status surrounding goods and services. And while everyone loves a bargain, curiosity is as important as the desire to save.
"The best retailers deliver an experience where everything hangs together," he said, before revealing that research by the bargain clothing retailer TK Maxx showed that if you can get people to spend 1% more time in a store, sales go up by 1.3%.
Intriguingly, he stressed the importance of storage cupboards. They allow you to limit what is actually on display, creating an air of exclusivity, while helping the dealer to control attention and choice, while keeping stock well supplied on the premises or stand.
Sir Stuart Rose took a broader approach to the concept of retail, calling it "a place that is constantly changing".
He agreed that understanding people's behaviour was key to success, as is mastering technology and innovation, as well as being prepared to take risks.
Despite concern over the cost of living, he argued that "prices have never been so good in the high street and the quality has never been so high".
Perhaps most reassuring of all was his view that we have passed the tipping point of high street decline, with evidence of rejuvenation seen in the growing number of coffee bars and artisan shops illustrating the importance of town centres as places of engagement at the heart of the community.
He illustrated the growing importance of technology by revealing that at online supermarket Ocado, of which he is non-executive chairman, 45% of all orders comes from mobile phones or tablets.
While adapting one's business to take advantage of the latest technology was a key theme of his talk, even more so was the need to adapt to the customer's demands rather than expecting them to fit in with what you want to do. "The customer isn't king, he's the master of the universe," he advised, a mantra he is famous for quoting.
And he also took a clear stand on pricing when it comes to displaying art and antiques either in a gallery or on a stand at a fair. If the customer cannot see clearly what the price is, they will go elsewhere, he warned.
"I like to have a starting price to negotiate from," he said.
Nigel White of cross-cultural training firm Canning focused on need-to-know tips for doing business in and with BRIC countries and the Middle East.
One of his most interesting revelations was that while Chinese buyers will bargain vigorously over less expensive items, they tend to accept face value prices for pieces at the top end.
Overall, though, his key piece of advice was "make sure you understand each other and don't make assumptions".
And he added:
• Everybody is an individual;
• There are all kinds of cultures; and
• Don't adjust too much.
"Culture awareness is a great navigational tool but be careful not to rely on it too much," he said, before defining what culture is and warning that it is not just defined geographically.
Symbols, behaviour, language, values, attitudes and assumptions all contribute to the make-up of culture, explained White, before laying bare a fascinating list of traits under the heading 'How are the British seen by others?'
On the plus side, they are seen as polite, having a sense of fair play and playing by the rules, well educated with good product knowledge, displaying good manners and a sense of humour and enjoying centuries of tradition. However, they are also seen as often speaking too quickly and not clearly, struggling to accept loss of Empire, insincere, unversed in other cultures, monolingual, patronising, and binge-drinkers.
Understanding these perceptions is important in adjusting one's behaviour and approach for success in business internationally.
A simple way of doing this is to use what White called Offshore English. Avoid colloquialisms and confusing phrasal verbs, he advised. Slow down, pause between phrases. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS) and enunciate clearly.
Dr Clare McAndrew of Arts Economics, the international art market analyst, conducted a fascinating session on the latest global trends, unveiling a number of headline statistics, such as the fact that 97% of all transactions are for less than €50,000. However, the timing of the conference, a matter of weeks before she publishes her latest TEFAF report at the Maastricht fair, meant that most of her latest findings had to be kept under wraps.