Business owners are so passionate about their businesses that apathy should not be the reason they can’t grow or work through growing pains.
Chris Guillot, fearless leader of Merchant Method, spends her days sharing valuable advice with merchants seeking out the next level of strategic growth for their businesses. We were delighted that she hopped on the phone to share some of those insights with us. We'll be joining her for Seattle Startup Week's retail track on Oct. 3 — to hold you over until then, enjoy our conversation with her below!
Let’s start with what Merchant Method is. What’s the pitch, for someone who’s never heard of what you do?
Merchant Method is a boutique consulting agency for small businesses. We help modern retailers, makers and small-batch manufacturers reach the next level of success in business and in life. We offer individual consulting, group events and workshops, and a library of free resources.
Our method teaches retail science to merchants who are successful retail artists so that small businesses can grow strategically rather than by luck or intuition alone.
Our approach is rooted in experience-based learning and we use a client’s business like a real-time case study. The clients learn critical thinking and leadership skills that apply now and also serve them in the future.
I can’t imagine that type of educational nurturing and curriculum pops out of an email overnight.
No! [laughs] The consulting work we do requires commitment and time. You need both to shore up a solid foundation of retail leadership, employee management, business operations, behavioral structure and critical thinking before you effectively implement the science of retail. Otherwise the new things you try won’t stick.
Even for merchants who are analytically inclined, the information you can access by being totally data-enabled typically ranges from being overwhelmed by the information to underutilizing it. You can be data-enabled and continue to lose profit.
How do you define totally data-enabled?
To me it means having quality inputs into your point-of-sale, accounting and any other software that you use, so that when it comes time to review your weekly dashboards and reports you’re analyzing quality information.
Let’s take a brick-and-mortar shop, for example. Merchandising and customer care are rewarding aspects of the business that are served well by intuition. On the flip side, understanding customer traffic and conversion isn’t intuitive.
Being totally data-enabled should be about accessing quality information that enables quality decision-making.
A comprehensive and effective loss prevention program goes hand-in-hand with a great sales and customer service program.
Shrink is a huge pain point. What are your thoughts on how retailers should approach loss prevention?
Shrink tells us how much preventable profit a business has lost but it also tells us a story about customer care and operational expectations. A comprehensive and effective loss prevention program goes hand-in-hand with a great sales and customer service program.
The behaviors that prevent loss are very similar to the behaviors that drive sales. I’d love to see more retailers approach loss prevention from a place of service rather than a state of policing.
When did your love of teaching begin?
I remember being intrigued by teaching at a young age. My first dream job was to be a kindergarten teacher that played a guitar and sang to her students.
You wanted to be Zooey Deschanel.
Basically! When I think through the kind of extracurricular activities I was interested in, they’re rooted in gaining clarity, providing structure and exploring ideas. I was very involved in student government, and speech and debate.
And then during your time with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) while at Georgetown University, educating middle schoolers about starting their own retail businesses, it sounds like you were planting the seeds for Merchant Method: Inspiring someone, connecting them with resources, getting out of their own way.
It’s funny because I had no idea Merchant Method was going to happen, but I can see my academic and personal involvement in microfinance planted the seeds for what I do now.
What was one of your major takeaways from NFTE?
You can’t just teach someone how to write a business plan and send them on their way. You have to also teach the entrepreneurial mindset as well as revisit basic skills like presenting, persuading, communicating and critical thinking. These skills will help you through the mental and emotional challenges of owning and operating a business.
Is it harder to teach veteran retailers how to rethink everything?
Not necessarily. Deciding that you’ll commit to working with a business consultant is pretty much a self-selecting process. By the time a small business begins working with us they’re aware that there’s a different way of running their business or that they can change the business that they run.
That’s an exciting starting place.
It is! And I’m not saying it isn’t challenging — of course it is. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, it’s emotional. Change requires extra thought and extra time. Running a small business, knowing you need help, and doing something different — that’s hard.
If I remember correctly, you left NFTE for the corporate retail world?
After college, I wanted to work for NFTE full time but knew I needed business and corporate retail experience before I could jump in and serve a nonprofit or the micro-business community the way that I wanted to.
I did want to talk about Anthropologie. Tell me about your time with them?
I always describe my time at Anthropologie as magical. This is also how I like to describe my work with clients — what we do is merchant magic, creating retail romance. It’s very different from an optical illusion.
By optical illusion, you mean a brand that isn’t delivering on the experience they seem to be offering?
Exactly. An optical illusion is a brand that’s only one level deep. There’s no judgment — just to say that in contrast, there are many layers to the way Anthropologie merchandises, the way they train employees, the way that they lead. There’s a consistency across those layers. When it comes to the working at Anthropologie, it’s studied.
At the time I worked for Anthropologie, I had years of corporate buying and product development experience. It was great to be reminded of how difficult it is to run a retail store. It’s challenging for so many reasons. Leading in-store was a great counterbalance to my corporate retail experience.
The thread that ties the Merchant Method client family together is that every client is a fantastic merchant. They’re ingrained in the lifestyle of their ideal customer. This makes them very qualified to decide what products they’re going to carry.
Who is Merchant Method’s typical client?
The thread that ties the Merchant Method client family together is that every client is a fantastic merchant. They’re ingrained in the lifestyle of their ideal customer. This makes them very qualified to decide what products they’re going to carry. That’s the common thread.
Our clients are attuned to their neighborhood or city. Customers and community members think of them as a type of leader. They’re advocates for the lifestyle they promote or for a cause their customers care about.
Also, our clients are already successful.
That’s what we see with indie retailers. They’re already rocking it.
Right, so when these retailers find me, it’s because they’re super successful, but the success is starting to get away from them. They’re starting to see where they have opportunities to create a solid foundation. Maybe they’ve made a huge capital investment, maybe the payroll’s really large, they’re purchasing a lot of inventory — yet the areas where they decided they could DIY some things or fly by the seat of their pants or hire friends are now becoming a barrier to even more success.
Totally. We’re talking to the same people, then. This type of retailer is used to having an influential voice and used to figuring things out on their own. For this type of personality, I think it’s hard to take a break.
Or they really want to, so badly, but part of the way they’ve operationalized their business makes it difficult for them to pull away.
I like to visualize with my clients: “Imagine being able to go away for six weeks!”
Marketing is meant to call attention to things you want to highlight. If there are things in your business that aren’t shored up, you’re highlighting a pain point and sometimes making it worse.
What are these retailers’ common business pitfalls?
The biggest pitfall is mistaking retail marketing with retail operations, as if they’re interchangeable or the same thing. I like to say that marketing is meant to call attention to things you want to highlight. If there are things in your business that aren’t shored up, you’re highlighting a pain point and sometimes making it worse. The first pitfall is the belief that marketing heals all pains, that it’s a means to more bottom-line profit. That isn’t always the case.
The second pitfall that I help clients understand is that running a seasonal, inventory-based business is more specialized than running a small business. The highs and lows of entrepreneurship are different than the highs and lows of retailing.
The third is businesses feeling like they’re not ready for consulting help. Or feeling apathy toward business pain points. It’s like saying, “I just want to ‘get by’ right now.” Business owners are so passionate about their businesses that apathy should not be the reason they can’t grow or work through growing pains.
There is no perfect time to hire a consultant. That’s why programs like Couch to 5K work well. That type of program says, “Let’s just start from where you’re at right now.”
What’s your advice to a retail shop owner who hasn’t taken a vacation in a year?
My advice to someone who feels like they’re running out of time or never have enough time is to become best friends with your calendar. Schedule time, and respect the time that you scheduled. Don’t fill every minute with something — maybe schedule six hours, and then schedule two hours as white space time. I’m all about scheduling time and sticking with it, and not overriding it.
Schedule time with your staff, meet with your store manager once a week. You may not think you need that time, but once you get beyond the tactical topics, amazing things will bubble up to the surface.
If someone has trouble leaving the store at a certain time, set an alarm on your cell phone to notify you when it’s time to wrap up. When you have less time to do things, you actually focus on the things that matter most.
Schedule time, and respect the time that you scheduled.
I believe scheduling your time creates more time. Once you get the hang of time discipline, you’re more likely to successfully take the time off you deserve without putting the business in jeopardy.
Great advice. Chris, I’m so glad I got to talk to you!
Thanks so much! I enjoyed our chat!
You can find Merchant Method’s blog and podcasts here. Find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, too! Need help taking your retail business to the next level? Connect with Chris via LinkedIn or email to start the conversation.