There are several techniques you can use to inspire story ideas and get the information you need outside of the official channels. Retailing is a very public business, after all. Everything is laid out inside the store for you to see, if you know how to look.
Walk the store
Even CEOs make a point to walk through their company’s stores – and their competition’s — on a regular basis. They are searching for clues to how the store is performing.
How full is the parking lot? How full are shoppers’ carts or bags? Is the store well-stocked, or are there empty shelves? How much merchandise is on sale? How much is on clearance? How long has it been on sale? How many employees are there? What products have they placed in prime positions at the front of the store, at the end of an aisle or on eye-level shelves? How often do they introduce new products?
These are all questions you can answer just by scanning the floor and will help inform your reporting. I also like to flip through magazines and the Sunday circulars to see how retailers are advertising their products and positioning their brands.
A store is private property, and a manager can kick you out if you try to interview people inside without the company’s permission. However, I’ve generally found that no one will bother you if all you’ve got is a pen and notepad. If I just need a few shopper quotes, I don’t bother alerting management or jumping through the corporate hoops. I just walk in.
However, most people are more wary of a camera, so I ask in advance for permission to shoot photos or video inside the store. Some retailers allow store managers to give approval; others require reporters to contact their headquarters. I’ve even had retailers ask our publication to sign contracts before a photographer or videographer could shoot. (We politely declined.)
I’ve also found that shopping center managers are more accessible than corporate press offices and more open to allowing interviews, photos and videos.
If I don’t feel like bothering with a retailer’s headquarters or it is being difficult, I’ll just call up a mall manager who will let me station myself just outside of the store to get the shots and interviews we need.
The retail beat is often combined with complementary coverage such as commercial real estate. Developers can often become rich sources of information with insider knowledge of a retailer’s sales and performance.
Commercial developers seek to build successful shopping centers, so they must understand retailers and stay on top of the latest store formats and popular brands. They tend to have the scoop on new stores coming to town and which ones may be leaving. They also make good “expert” quotes and can talk about the impact a retailer has on a particular neighborhood.
They are often on the opposite side of developers but are no less plugged in. They can be influential in whether a retailer even comes to town and may request certain requirements, such as limits on store hours or proximity to schools. In some cases, the community may be the force that brought the retailer to town in the first place. They also help dictate the mix of retail (i.e. food, apparel, services) in a neighborhood. If you’re writing about a grocery store, you should also cultivate any union representatives.
Trade groups, experts and blogs
Several national organizations can help provide you with statistics, context and resources for your stories. They can also provide expert commentary and help keep you abreast of the latest developments in the field.
- National Retail Federation: The PR people at this trade association are some of the most helpful and in-touch in the business. They can provide commentary on almost any topic and can put you in touch with top executives across the industry. Through its partner, BigResearch, it releases exclusive data on consumer behavior, trends and spending estimates for major holidays and significant news events. During Christmas, they are indispensible. Their members include major retailers such as Macy’s, small businesses and online-only players. Call them early and often and you won’t regret it. Specialties include: consumer trends, holiday stories, online shopping, and organized retail crime/loss prevention, retail policy.
- Retail Industry Leaders Association: The rival trade group to NRF, its members are tilt toward big-box stores such as Walmart and Home Depot. It focuses less on consumer trends and more on policy and back-end issues. It was a significant player in the national health-care debate, for example and has also weighed in on online sales tax collection.
- International Council of Shopping Centers: This trade group represents retail real estate developers and is a valuable resource for data on shopping malls, including vacancy rates, square footage, average rents, etc. Their analysis of monthly same-store sales is widely cited, and their chief economist Michael Niemira is accessible and helpful. They also have expertise in organized retail crime/loss prevention, lifestyle centers vs. enclosed shopping malls and new store formats.
- NPD Group: This consumer behavior research firm has experts with deep knowledge of all the major retail categories, from electronics to toys to beauty to apparel. Their detailed data is widely used both by retailers and reporters. In a pinch, NPD FashionWorld analyst Marshal Cohen is always good for a quote.
- Mintel Research: This companies issues comprehensive reports on almost every merchandise category under the sun. Though some of their work aggregates other reports, it is helpful for getting a strong background in a topic.
- RetailWire: This website for retail executives features frank discussions about the nitty gritty of selling. The site organizes discussions around key issues (i.e. zero-waste grocery stores or mobile marketing), with industry leaders offering weighing in with their opinions. This is helpful for identifying useful contacts and also for background and context.
- Consumerist: This blog culls consumer news and complaints over just about anything. (Recent entry: Turkey Hill Ice Cream is Somehow Both “New Flavor” and “Original Recipe.”) But it also includes some great tips about what is on shoppers’ minds. Another recent post accuses Target, RiteAid and Publix of changing its coupon policies to circumvent avid couponers.