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The Customers You Don't Want

Don't be left with an empty bird feeder because of interlopers.
No Loitering sign

As spring turns into summer, we've started to have more visitors to our house. They always show up this time of year. You know how it goes, they just happen to be in the neighborhood and drop by. They are expected, but you don't know the timing.

We are always delighted to see them, of course. Our guests brighten up our day, are usually entertaining and often create moments of inspiration (you are now experiencing the results). We welcome them and look forward to their arrival.

But having visitors can have a downside. In our case, they are always eating, are noisy (especially if we are trying to sleep), come and go as they please, and make a huge mess. They are also very fickle — if you don't give them what they want, they will take off without warning.

Overall, we've really enjoyed our bird feeder. It has been a great addition to our backyard and provides us with the opportunity to watch blue jays, cardinals, sparrows and grackles (if you live in central Texas, you know what I am talking about), to name a few of the species we see.

If you put up a bird feeder, it makes sense that you will attract birds since that is what it is designed to do. It is sort of like in the movie "Field of Dreams;" an "if you build it, they will come" type of thing. And, despite all the pros and cons mentioned above, the birds are lovely to have around. They provide a real return on the effort you put into it through their beauty, activity and song they provide. A "social ROI," if you will.

And then you have the interlopers, the squirrels. The attraction of the bird seed is just too much for them to resist. Unfortunately, they are not content to just clean up the food that has fallen on the ground — they want to go to the source, the bird feeder itself. When that happens, the squirrels start scaring off the birds, causing them to relocate to a less threatening and intimidating feeder.

The net result is fewer birds and less entertainment. If you want the birds to come back, you have to get rid of the squirrels.

I see the bird feeder as being analogous to a convenience store. You find a good place to locate it so that you can be seen by as many people as possible. Then, you work really hard to bring customers in: you stock the shelves, clean the floors, train your staff and offer promotions. You do everything you can to be welcoming and inviting.

But you can also start getting people you don't want at the store, the ones hanging around in the parking lot or behind the store who use your location as a gathering place. Admittedly, a convenience store offers a lot of advantages if someone is looking for a place to hang out: there is usually a lot of space in the parking lot where they can gather, the openness of the parking lot provides excellent visibility to be able to spot threats from far away and ... there's snacks!

As you have probably experienced yourself, having people just milling about in the parking lot of a store can be a frightening experience. It makes you think twice about whether you want to walk from your car to the front door of the store. This is especially true for any person who feels vulnerable or is worried about their personal safety.

If your customers don't feel safe when they visit your store, they'll stop coming, your business will suffer and you'll be left with an empty bird feeder. The situation starts becoming one negative spiral and the problem begins feeding on itself — fewer customers mean less foot traffic and cars on the parking lot, which amplifies the space and visibility conditions mentioned above.

I'm working on a situation like this at the moment. There is a store in an urban location that should be a really good, high-traffic store. It's on a busy street corner; it's a large lot with a gasoline offer; there is a high-density middle-income neighborhood surrounding it; there is a school located across the street; it has good access from both roads; and there's no significant competition.

However, there's been an ongoing problem with people loitering in the parking lot. Several open-air drug deals have been reported, and there's been shootings in the parking lot on a couple of occasions. Ironically, there has not been a high incidence of robbery or theft at the store itself, even though you might think there was a history of it with all the bulletproof glass and bars on the windows. My understanding is that shrink is a problem, though.

The local police department has made dozens of visits to the site and, frankly, the police are tired of having to deal with the frequent complaints. The situation in the parking lot is also hurting the store's sales as the loiterers intimidate people from coming into the store. There has been a sales decline over the last 18 months and transaction numbers are down. The bulk of store sales are made up of low-margin items, mainly cigarettes.

So, what to do? I'm working with the business owner and his landlord to put in place a program to enhance the outside and inside of the store. In my next column, I am going to present the specific strategies we are using and, I hope, the initial results from the program. My goal is to provide insight on how we addressed a specific problem, in case you are experiencing similar issues.

Generally speaking, the strategy is that by firstly making the location a less inviting area for people to loiter and secondly increasing the legitimate customer traffic, a busier store will help drive out the problematic people. With more customers and activity, the parking lot will be less attractive for people to hang around.

We are going to implement both passive and proactive programs to discourage the crowd (this site has had a security guard on the premises, but it has not been a deterrent). I'm also excited about implementing some artificial intelligence tools related to store security that were discussed in the latest Convenience Leaders Vision Group report that was released in May of this year.

I recognize that there are several caveats to our program. First, we know that we are not going to "solve" the loitering problem; we are just going to be able to move it somewhere else. Second, the current loiterers are customers of the store, so moving them on could negatively affect sales, but we are planning on new customer sales replacing and exceeding those lost sales. And third, putting the program into place will cost money to implement.

Our goal is to show that there is a financial ROI through increased sales and reduced shrink and a social ROI by reducing police visits and increasing the goodwill of the neighborhood.

Check back in a couple of months when my next column comes out. I'll let you know the results — good and bad — and whether the birds have come back.

About the Author

Roy Strasburger

Roy Strasburger is CEO of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry nationwide. StrasGlobal operates retail locations for companies that don’t have the desire, expertise or infrastructure to operate them. Learn more at Strasburger is also cofounder of Vision Group Network, whose members discuss future trends, challenges and opportunities, and then share with all retailers and suppliers, regardless of the size of their business. 

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