On the horns of a dilemma

23 August, 2007

There's certainly room to diversify in retailing, but which combination of goods will work best to boost off-licence sales?

I'm not really much of a one for shopping. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's perhaps because I already spend so much time in a shop. Ditto packing away the groceries when we get back from the shops - too much like restacking the shelves at work. Luckily, my lovely partner is very understanding of this. The obvious exception to my dislike of shopping is shopping for beer and wine, which I can do until my eyes dry up and fall out of their sockets. If I ever go missing in the supermarket, I can be found with pursed lips, inspecting the beer selection, and perhaps even selecting some for the purposes of research.

On the rare occasion that I do venture out and buy something, I'm always amazed at the diversity of goods on offer. I'm not talking about the array of different MP3 players, or the gazillion variants of trainers available in a shoe shop. What I'm increasingly surprised by is how so many shops now try to stock everything. Diversity, it seems, is the way forward.

Supermarkets stock white goods. Music stores sell books, and vice versa. It seems as though businesses are no longer content with their core market and being the best at what they do; they must now be mini department stores in order to move forward.

I'm not against this trend per se. When this business started, it had a very clearly defined set of ideals - ­quality beers, wines and spirits. The problem was, this dictum meant not selling cans of beer, refusing to sell tobacco, and stocking a rather esoteric range of wines and spirits that were good but were never going to appeal to the sort of people who came through the door.

The business limped forward, shackled by its own ideals, and very nearly failed. In time, compromises were made - canned beer, branded wines, more fridges, cigarettes. Diversification worked, and business got better.

Thinking that this was the key, things were taken further. DVD rental and popcorn was in place for a while. Did it work? Did it hell - it was outside of the niche that we had created, and it was the subject of much derision, both from regular customers and from local traders.

The Italian barber from down the road used to come in for a mid-morning chat. He'd eye the DVD rack with contempt, pointing at the films in turn. "Thass crap. Thass a really crap. That was on Sky last night ... and iss crap," he would say. It was OK for him, he was a hairdresser. The worst that could happen to him was someone cutting their hair at home and then walking past the shop with a freshly shaven pate, pointing to it and laughing through the barber shop window. Not that I ever did that, good lord, no.

So we stopped the diversification and concentrated on what were good at - quality beers, wines and spirits. We still struggle with the spirits, but we carry a reasonable range, because you have to.

I'm sure there is space to diversify a bit, or to combine two splendidly diverse ideas into one business. Last time I visited my brother in Salisbury, I was surprised to find a shop that sold a nice selection of wine and a good range of art supplies. I wish I had the guts to come up with something equally unlikely - taxidermy, motorcycles, or perhaps really nice double-cuff shirts and cufflinks.

I know I would shop there, but then I'm probably not the average consumer.




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