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Here is a guest blog from Madison Riley and Kathi Toll, consultants with Kurt Salmon Associates:
Walgreens’ announcement this month that it would give free health care services to newly unemployed customers is an excellent example of how the private sector can help consumers deal with harsh economic times. The Deerfield-based retailer has started giving away routine treatments for certain respiratory illnesses, seasonal allergies, and skin conditions through its walk-in clinics. Such charity can also make excellent economic sense.
We’re not saying retailers should give away the products on their shelves to the needy, or stop laying off workers. The executives running Wal-Mart, Target, Macy’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, Staples and the other 220 public companies that dominate America’s $4 trillion retailing industry have a core responsibility to shareholders.
But it is in every merchant’s interest to help customers return to work, so they can return to their old shopping habits. Apparel retailers could easily offer free advice to out-of-work consumers through workshops on how to dress for job interviews. A local auto parts store could help people get another year out of a troubled car. And the office supply store could easily get small-business consultants to explain how to conduct online marketing campaigns or get a small-business loan.
Walgreens is not alone in recognizing this. Apple stores feature “Genius Bars” that serve up free troubleshooting advice. Staples offered free tune-ups of personal computers at its U.S. stores last month. Outdoors gear retailer REI holds free clinics in its stores on bicycle maintenance.
Retailers could also help consumers by raising money to offset growing cutbacks in public services. How hard would it be for a sporting goods chain to conduct fund-raisers for local sports teams by getting pro athletes to sign autographs in the stores? Why couldn’t a women’s apparel chain stage fashion shows to raise money for women’s groups?
The only thing holding many big retailers back from launching such programs is the shopkeeper’s mindset: We’re in the business of selling products. But research we conducted last year suggests that attitude needs to change quickly. The only way for retailers to compete against big discounters is to design unique products, provide services that help people use those products, and strike a strong emotional connection with consumers in their communities.
The recession gives retailers a chance to insert themselves into their customers’ lives at a time of enormous need.
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