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This business, is coming like a ghost town…

OK, I’m showing my age with that headline (as well as my musical tastes!). And I challenge you (if you’re a Brit and were around in the early 80’s) not to hear the brass chords and the eerie flute tune…

Last week I got back from one of my regular trips to Philadelphia. The weather over there was VERY hot and VERY humid, so on one particular morning I dived into a mall to shelter from the heat and enjoy a few minutes in air-conditioned comfort.

I decided I’d take advantage of the situation to indulge one of my addictions, and headed straight for the mall’s bookstore.

Now, I know that ereaders and youtube have pretty much killed reading, and Amazon has pulled books out of the high street, but even so you normally see quite a few people browsing in bookshops, so I was surprised to find this one deserted apart from the three staff. It was big, and well lit, and airy, with posters announcing the latest big releases. It opened out onto the main concourse of the mall. So why was it empty?

It didn’t take long for me to figure out why.

As I walked in the first thing I heard was the manager calling across the store to one of the staff.

“Shelly, you can’t eat on the shop floor.” (why not? I wondered. Who was it going to upset? The customers? Oh wait. There weren’t any. Maybe that’s why the store was empty: Shelly had been eating! Unlikely).

Shelly gave a muffled apology through a mouthful of half-chewed sandwich and disappeared under the counter.

Then I heard “Peter, this trolley shouldn’t be here. Move it into the back.”

A sullen-looking flop-haired teenager slinked to where the trolley had been left, and pushed it away.

Again, I wondered who was going to object if the staff did some restocking during quiet time–though I suspect it’s ALL quiet time in that shop.

Less than a minute in the store, and both staff had been told off in front of the only customer. Not a great impression. I felt for the poor staff.

I walked through the book stacks looking for the business section and finally found it, right at the back of the store. I picked out half a dozen books that looked interesting and looked around for a chair to sit in. There weren’t any, so I sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of the bookcase and started to flick through.

Within seconds the floor around me was darkened by a shadow. I looked up. It was the manager.

“I’m sorry sir, you can’t sit there. I’ll have to ask you to move.”

I looked around the deserted shop, wondering who I might be disturbing or obstructing, then looked back up at him.

With a little more emphasis he repeated himself. “I have to ask you to move sir”.

I had the distinct impression that if I didn’t move he might well call security. Actually, based on what I’d seen of his attitude so far, I suspected he might be carrying a tazer to deal with customers who won’t do as they’re told.

I got up, put the books back on the shelf and walked out of the shop.

It reminded me of a show by the UK’s “queen of the high street”, retail consultant Mary Portas. She had been called in to a big-brand retail chain that was suffering. She visited one of the chain’s main stores to see how they did business and thwen gave the board feedback. Everywhere she went in the store she’d found posters that told you what not to do. It was full of threats and warnings that made everyone–staff and customers alike–feel like criminals. It just wasn’t a welcoming place.

That was the environment this book store had created too. The staff had to be there. Customers didn’t.

Not surprisingly, within 20 minutes I’d found the local Barnes & Noble, where I picked out the same books, sat in the in-store Starbucks to check them out, and then handed over $100 at the tills. $100 I suspect the other store desperately needed. But they’d handed it right to their competitor.

Now you may or may not have a physical shop or office in your business.

You may or may not have staff.

But you communicate with people all the time. Your website. Your book. Your Youtube channel. Your voicemail greeting. Even the clothes you wear and the words you use. Dozens of little ways of interacting with people. That’s your “physical” brand.

Think about that right now, and ask yourself: does your physical brand make clients and potential clients feel like a welcome guest?  Or does it tell them that they’re an unwanted distraction from the serious work of running your business smoothly !

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