How Retailers Can Go Wrong

January 21, 2007 Blog 12 comments

Recently, my wife and I had the chance to speak to a young girl working at a specialty retail outlet at VivoCity.

The circumstances which led to this were rather unpleasant, and I prefer not to go into details. Our conversation was pretty enlightening though.

It revealed some serious flaws which certain (not all) retail outlets in Singapore face. I find that these problems are especially true in smaller SME retail establishments.

So what are the issues? Let me list them down:

1) Compensation is pretty poor in the retail sector. The average pay for sales assistants are between $5.50 to $6.00 an hour for part timers. While there may be overtime pay, health plans, bonuses and other benefits are usually non-existent.

2) Rostering is always a problem, especially for weekend and holiday duties. Some retail outlets do not give staff a choice of whether to work on Saturdays and Sundays. This seriously affects their work-life balance.

3) Training is practically non-existent. Workers report to work from day one and are already expected to serve customers. As such, product knowledge tend to be lacking.

4) While some may have a basic system, the truth is that most SME retail outlets do not have SOPs. When in doubt, workers are asked to simply call the boss. This results in customer frustration over undue delays.

5) Staff loyalty (and moral) is low. Due to the lack of manpower in these outlets, there is little time for welfare related activities. Employees are expected to obey orders with little leeway for creative expression or innovation.

6) Mistakes also tend to be quite frequent. We noted, with chagrin, how simple calculations could be made wrongly. Again, it is a sign of inadequate training and exposure.

7) Quite a high percentage of the staff are part-timers or students. Their main interest is to earn some pocket money during their free time or holidays. Serving customers is probably a second priority as most don’t see it as a life long career.

8) Retail and service staff turnover is generally exceedingly high. The average we noted was between 3 to 6 months. In fact, those who stay for 6 months or longer are already considered seniors in certain instances. This lack of continuity leads to service compromises in the long term.

9) Customers are treated with suspicion rather then welcome. The basic premise seem to be that everybody is either trying to cheat, steal or con. If you stay too long at a particular section, you will be questioned. If you flip through too many sets of clothing, you may face a harassed looking shop assistant quickly rearranging the “mess” which you created to its original pristine condition.

Fundamentally, I think the whole attitude of retail bosses and shop owners need to change first and foremost. They need to understand that before you can delight your customers, you need to treat your staff right, show them the ropes and understand that they are only human and have their needs. Only when your team members see you going the extra mile for them will they then do likewise for your customers.

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. haiz…It’s not easy owning a retail outlet in Singapore.

    Overheads are high, staff turnover is high. Some customers think they are kings and are very demanding.

    I hate being a retailer. But because my husband needs help in his shop, I have to help out whenever I could.

    It’s difficult for small retailers to send their staff for training. Unlike the big retailers, we don’t have enough manpower & due to staff turnover, we are reluctant to send them for training.

    If we have qualified sales assistants, the salary will be high. The higher costs would be transferred to the customers. Now that GST is going to be raised, the consumers are the ones who have to pay more.

  2. eastcoastlife, thanks for your sharing. Its certainly true that the retail line isn’t easy. My brother owned a convenience shop for a couple of months but the hours were tough and margins slim. Family life also suffered then.

    I think one possible way around it is not to compete on price but value. I know it sounds easier in theory than reality, but think about how you can offer something that customers value and are willing to pay for.

    In the optical business for example, is there a way to reach customers in their own homes? Perhaps you can blog about occasional innovations in eyewear, shades, contacts for example, or ways to improve your eye sight, or how you can match the right frames with the right fashion for example. What are the celebrities wearing? What kind of food does one eat to improve eyesight?

    Ultimately, its not so much about just getting a pair of spectacles or contact lenses, but improving your vision, your looks, and your quality of life. Building a community also helps, and considering the huge numbers of near-sighted folks in Singapore, it won’t be difficult to find those people.

    Sorry I got carried away ah….. Just got hit by a brainwave.

  3. gerimegaly2,

    Agree with you on the difficulties of retaining staff in the service sector. Somehow, we need to find value beyond just the price to include convenience to customers and solving a problem which has always been there. At the same time, making working conditions motivating and acceptable to employees.

  4. Hey, thanks for the nice entry, its really something that I knew but never thought much about it.

    I study retail, I worked retail before, and I’m an office girl now hee… Reason? Because I dread how employers expect the sales people to know everything, everytime, and like what you’ve said, they expect us to serve the customers once we are on the job. they call it on the job training, but is actually totally anxious to get you to work.

    I’ve seen very very bad service in Singapore, I felt that its getting bad to worst recently.

    Before I went to Bangkok, I had an experience with Swensens at AIRPORT. Can you imagine the service was REALLY BAD? It wasnt like this 5 years back. they didnt even greet us when we stepped into the restaurant. No one greeted us, and even whe sat down ourselves the waitresses simply threw the menu on the table. I cant believe Singapore airport is giving this kind of service.

    Totally disappointing. that is perhaps the reason why i choose to start up myself and not relying on people hehehe…

  5. That’s right, it’s a vicious circle in the retail and service industry here. Many workers view it as a temporary job and employers are not willing to invest in their training or taking care of their welfare because of the high staff turnover rate. Campaigns like GEMS can only do so much.

    But then how come service standards in Hong Kong can improve so much over the last 2 decades? I was there in the early 80s and service really sucks. I haven’t been there since then but I heard that they have improved a lot in this area.

  6. Right, Walter, I did think of all those you have mentioned. The heart is willing but the flesh is weak. hahaha…..

    I got so carried away by my personal blog that I forgot my mission is to help my hubby. ok… have to get down to the task liao…….

  7. victor,

    I went to Hong Kong in July 2005 and the service was simply superb then. It was not like anything that I have experienced in Singapore before. Even the taxi drivers were very polite and courteous and so were the street stall owners in Lady’s Street and Temple Street. Shopping was also a pleasure with attentive and service oriented sales assistants. Oh yes, and they were willing to speak in Mandarin (pu tong hua) too when they knew that my cantonese cannot pass.

  8. etel,

    Glad to hear that you are taking the entrepreneurial route. I spent about 4 years in one of my previous jobs working with SMEs, and I must say that hearing their stories have always been inspirational and motivating. Alas, I have not been brave enough to take the plunge, but perhaps some day….

    A must read for anybody who wants to go into business is Purple Cow. Check out my review at:

  9. It will always be a challenge, especially in Singapore where rents are sky high. I believe a retail business owner is more willing to pay top dollar for a populous locale, then to pay his employees well. Unless such employees prove to be “priceless” in the business owner’s eyes, they (the business owner) will undoubtly feel that there will always be a dime a dozen of them out there to fill the void, should their employees leave to seek greener pastures.
    And unfortunately, it is always a vicious cycle…


  10. gerimegaly2,

    Agree with you that the high costs leads bosses to scrimp and save and treat their staff like commodities. I feel that the constant emphasis on price competition amongst Singapore retailers isn’t helping the situation. We must compete on value and the entire experience – not just one-for-ones and 30% off! Too often retailers pay so much attention on the product and its features that they forget the peripherals which are equally important – service warranty, delivery, environment, etc.

  11. I disagree with Eastcoastlife. You can provide optmimal customer service by first clearly setting your expectations to your employees. Second, hire those employees who have positive attitudes. Third, treat your employees as if they were the most important people in the world, even when you can’t pay them enough. Happy employees create happy customers. Focus on creating happy customers, don’t focus on complaining about the difficulties of business. It’s difficult for all of us.

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