Suggestions on How to Hire a Retail Consultant

As a retail consultant (approx 30 years now), I have accumulated a great deal of experience assisting retailers. Early in my professional career I discovered that I sincerely enjoyed retail and I became increasingly sure that I wanted to make that arena my long-term career path. Starting out long ago as a young consultant, I probably learned more personally than I helped my clients. After a short time, however, I transitioned to being able to really assist my clients to make their retail organizations more effective (profitable) – and I got very good at it. My career progression spanned small boutique retail consulting organizations to the largest in the world. During that time I progressed from a young consultant to a senior partner in a very large international consulting organization.

I finally decided to put my skills to the ultimate test and opened my own firm. Part of that decision was driven by financial desire and part by the challenge of establishing and building a respected retail consulting “Brand” on my own. I wanted to see if I could do it, and it worked. We’re here and we are growing rapidly. Not long ago I decided to accept smaller retail clients, as our focus was (and will continue to be) larger ($billion+) retailers. As I started to take calls from various smaller retailers (both food and non-food), I began to notice a distinct and very consistent trend exhibited by virtually all of them who contacted us. They were very inexperienced in soliciting an outside resource - and clearly did not know how to effectively contact a consultant for assistance.

My purpose in offering this observation is to set the stage for advice to small retailers who are considering contacting a retail consultant for assistance to help their organization prosper. If you are going to be seeking an outside consulting resource, follow along with me and hopefully I can share a few tid-bits of advice that may help you to be more successful in your quest. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it would only be fair to also state that these suggestions will benefit both parties, however, the small retailer has much more to gain in the end.

Let me begin with a description of how many small retailers contact us. I’ll describe an average phone call and how the conversation progresses…..(ARC is Atlanta Retail Consulting)

Caller: Dials our firm
ARC: Good morning, this is Pat Fitzpatrick from Atlanta Retail Consulting. How can I help you?
Caller: Is this the retail consulting company?
ARC: Yes it is, what can we do for you?
Caller: I’m looking at your website right now and we need help…………………….
ARC: OK, what do you need help with?
Caller: I don’t understand your question because I just told you we need help.
ARC: We need to know what it is you want help with. Could you be a little more specific?
Caller: We need help with everything!
ARC: Well, you really need to be a bit more specific and tell us what exactly you feel isn’t working well in your firm.
Caller: Just everything.
ARC: Well do you need help with store operations, merchandising, accounting, systems, real estate site selection, hiring issues, product movement, or purchasing?
Caller: Yes.
ARC: Do you have a budget for consulting services?
Caller: No, not really.
ARC: Did you ever consider that consultants charge for their time?
Caller: Not really.

The end result is a small retailer who is confused and sometimes downright upset- and they can’t imagine why they were not understood. At this point the consultant is sure the small retailer is totally unprepared to be in the retail business - and does not possess the business or inter-personal skills to improve their situation. Most consultants decide quickly to not interact any further with a caller who presents themselves in that type of manner and, in the end, nobody wins. Interactions like this can be avoided - and you can dramatically increase the likelihood of getting needed professional assistance - by considering the following recommendations (tailored to smaller retailers):

  • Prioritize your issues – decide what your key problems are. Know that you cannot address a broad array of challenges at the same time. Think of a consultant as a doctor who is being asked to help your company. You would never ask a doctor to fix 25 issues at once. The same goes for consultants. They know that addressing a “focused list of issues” is much more valuable to you in the long run and is much more likely to be successful.

  • Prepare for your initial contact with the consultant- think about how you would like to conversation to proceed and how you can best organize it. Remember, consultants think logically and methodically and will respond better to you if you do as well.

  • Be very professional right from the start. Begin your contact by professionally introducing yourself and your firm, then succinctly describing what it is you are seeking so the consultant can tell you if they might be able to help you.

  • Know that consultants charge for their help, just like your attorney and CPA. Decide up front if you can afford assistance and what your budget really is. Most consultants can give you a general fee range if you can accurately describe to them what it is you really want. Don’t expect to pay the consultant wages on the same scale as your employees. Good consultants make a very comfortable living and charge a fee that has been established in the industry as reflecting their worth. They cost a lot more per day than your employees - and the good ones are worth every penny. In most cases they may be the difference between your success and failure.

  • Don’t’ solicit assistance from an out-of-town resource unless you plan to pay for their travel cost. Your advisors would be traveling at your request and you are responsible for their expenses.

  • Be prepared to change. Typically, the biggest obstacle to success in a troubled firm is the leader. If you had been doing things correctly in the first place you wouldn’t need a consultant. They will look to you to spearhead new methods and ways of doing various tasks, so plan to be open to change. The more change you block, the more things will stay the same.

  • If you have partners in your business make sure you all are in agreement about the expenditure necessary to hire an outside resource and determine your budget before contacting a consultant. Spending a lot of time interviewing an outside resource and then deciding you need to get approval from your partners, or superior, only serves to waste your time.

  • Plan to make the consultant your trusted partner. Plan to tell the consultant everything about your business so that they can fully understand the details and reasons behind your challenges. The more they know the more they can help you.

  • Select the most qualified consultant you think you can afford. Review their background and don’t be afraid to ask for details about their experience base. Be specific with your questions. If you need store operations advice (for example) ask detailed questions about the consultant’s store operations experience and the types of challenges they have experienced. Judge carefully if they have had enough experience to help you properly. Make sure they have been providing those services for a long period of time. Many people attempt to be consultants and about 95% of them have moved on to other employment within 5 years. Good consultants have longevity and serve a broad variety of clients over an extended period of time.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help guide you in the process of soliciting and securing a desirable consulting partner who will have a positive impact on your business. Remember, a good consultant wants to help you-that’s their only job. Prepare for your initial contact with them and let them guide and assist you. Most roadblocks that are encountered are created by the unaware retailer, who gains little in the end.

For more information on this topic contact Pat Fitzpatrick at Atlanta Retail Consulting Inc