PR is vital in retailing: helps establish image

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A full generation after World War II retailing has joined the circle of geographic realignment and value redefinition that was projected to market the new products and services. The changes have been not only geographic, but to meet new technologies and changing tastes. Among casualties of these changes have been delivery service, telephone ordering, personal service and, indeed, the once dominant institution of every central city. The most notable growth factors have been those symbols of non service, the discounters; and the highest attrition has been among stand pat stores, wherever they were.

An innovation has been the public embracing of PR by big stores, chains and discount groups. Each uses it differently but all who are opening suburban or outlying town stores appear to follow the craft's classic pattern: plan early, and plenty.

The relation of PR to the shifts in store acceptance was a mixed bag: at one extreme it led countless "business for myself" investors to follow celebrities into franchise operations doomed to die; and at the other it created instant civic leaders of newly transplanted suburban big store branch and shopping center owners who were toasted at civic banquets simply for picking up the tab.



It may be that the "new PR," as some old line merchants call corporate PR, has had more effect upon big retailing than is generally recognized. At first, discount stores could do no wrong. As they swept everything before them the older established people did not believe it. As matters developed, the new type was here to stay, but not before it had a more traumatic season or two than they had given their older neighbors.

Discount stores found their greatest trial in raising capital: that became top management's major job, and that is when they brought in PR. The old line stores had to resell their values and follow their customers: that is where they first learned that PR is a power in itself, not just an advertising adjunct. In recent years the value of names has been the nerve center of the revolution. Big stores in new locations speak of their "second generation charge accounts," but in more reflective moments those that are growing know that there is little except the name with roots in an earlier era; and the discount stores have learned that the image of the family store, charge accounts and all, must precede the bargain price. In all stores, costs in the 1970's are paramount: those who built on low cost are fighting to keep it; those who saw the added service as a business builder now substitute promotions. PR is itself a multiple agent in most big retail operations: at the top it sets up the general manager's public routines; in the personnel department it plans the loyalty programs; and in merchandising its major role is the tie ins: civic, community, manufacturers and local sports and celebrity coordination with store events. There is little to promote that is beyond big retailing's readiness to jump aboard. Here is a typical urban area work project for a store and/or branches:

When target public includes practically anyone in an area or community who can read, the problem of PR is equally divided: what to do and what to avoid.

In a 10 store operation a three man staff (woman and two men or vice versa) would place the head practitioner with the general manager or merchandising chief officer. His major responsibility on customer projects is evaluating overlap. In promotions self contained in departments or in store, PR is invited in after the plan is set. For metropolitan advertised events PR sits on planning committee: just as he does on a manufacturer's new product/model committee or product division.

Big retail PR for the respective key functions management, personnel and merchandising has an outline of major store events and promotions. Upon occasion it may be in one suburb or center: that would be promoted by PR behind the advertising and store activity schedule. Company wide events should not exceed one a month when aimed at fixed targets. That is: at specific market segments such as suburban home owners, movers or newlyweds. The proliferation of seasonal potentials requires PR coordinating, just as it does in the internal operation.

Big Potential in Multi store Operations

In the day of single stores, the PR career under the advertising manager had an uncertain outlook. In the numerous types of multiple store operation, that may be as good as any place else to enter a local store or chain operation. Big stores always have been the bulwark of local media advertising. Food chains have developed mid week shopping advertising in newspapers that sustain them from week to week. Department stores have shortened their advertising life by overnight events, but their broader promotional scope keeps seasonal departments in ferment even as one day shoppers may stimulate these specialized sales.

The center of interest for the career PR practitioner in today's retailing is not whether his techniques are essential and wanted. His interest lies in his promotability. As much as PR has blossomed during the retailing realignments and explosive growth of the leaders, only the youngest organizations commit themselves to structuring PR into operations as a major voice. Its peculiar roles, spanning every trouble or opportunity area, tend to work against the individual practitioner's consideration for the promotion ladder.

Although business publicity does not play a big role in store acceptance, the broad PR techniques that include publicity can be the basis of establishing local acceptance for the "try there first" residual reputations still powerful even in the newest shopping areas. The future of PR in these enterprises will depend upon how deeply it is able to penetrate into operations with its techniques.

Dealing with New Store Units

When new units of retail companies move into suburbs or nearby points, the effects upon the present employees and customers may be critical. The new location may appear more desirable than the employee's present place, and customers may feel the same way. Yet while hundreds of such expansions have been made in recent years, very few have accurately forecast the percentage of net gain, or loss, brought by the new operation. Almost always the moves pay off, but often only after upheavals among employees or customers.

Most decisions in such expansions, as related to PR, are made before the commitment on location. These include foreknowledge of employee reaction and buying patterns. Here we can only say that a solid program of objectives should be approved well ahead of announcements.

Getting Business News Coverage

Department stores have long created innovations for publicity benefits. But until recently publicity meant a new element, or news subject, in advertising or displays. The more recent entries, discount department stores, added little to the old line store's PR knowledge by new publicity stunts. The entire industry's appraisal of PR changed with the increase of corporate objectives. The decline of local ownership was generally a subject of regret, but local newspapers welcomed incoming discount and highway stores. As the big local stores moved in defense, retailing became a subject of business news. The shortage of executive manpower, due partly to newcomers raiding slow moving established chains, put all companies into competition in building executive organizations.

The first choice PR job for mature practitioners undoubtedly is the corporate end. Most of his work passes unseen outside a small policy group, and some financial and business editors and executives, but that is where policy is set.

Creating Merchandising Events

Some emphasis is placed upon the role of corporate PR in the newly aligned powers because that in itself is an innovation. In all chains, the planners are at headquarters. Merchandising is still their bread and butter. The once obscure advertising staff writer is now more often a staff assistant to the general manager. Some stores devote most of their PR attention to community activities; others have accelerated employee programs. But as corporate PR has developed executive recruiting programs, including activities aimed at attracting college graduates, the re energized local stores have resurrected fashion events and store activities to attract visitors, and their press meetings equal those of political candidates.

In most communities, the old established stores have caught up with their new competitors and taken over the lead in merchandising events that lend themselves to PR attention. While most PR managers work alone, or with one assistant, and report directly to the general manager, they continue to integrate PR into the merchandising divisions. That generally is still the bread and butter end of retailing PR.

Putting Together the PR Team

As noted, the high cost of personnel, from a purely competitive viewpoint, or in dealing with unions, has changed the PR function in these departments. The early concept of retail employees working on salary bases has changed as a concept and in fact. As employment costs have risen, the automation of self service has been widely adopted. But industry and large retail employers have learned that motivation was more meaningful than side stepping employee demands.

Without detailing the types of employee activity best suited to PR communications programs, the intent here is to alert career candidates to the need for employee motivation in big stores. Personnel departments have well established programs in these stores, whether linked directly to PR or staffed internally. But, as in industrial PR, communications with employees means reaching the family and neighbors. Although the practitioner in a local unit should report to the general manager, personnel may be his direct route to the higher positions.

In aligning himself to the general manager, the PR practitioner does not retain the bread and butter essentiality he has in a merchandising relation, nor is the manager relationship as essential to company operation as employee functions. Some companies use headquarters staff PR for store openings and for the activities common to new enterprises.

The sporadic nature of top management PR activities is a major risk for the growing practitioner. Even though a public spirited head officer likes attending banquets, speaking at Pie Queen Ceremonies and other public events, unless he is making news or performing highly essential functions, the PR representative does not have much to do. Omitting corporate PR, the top manager role is seldom as profitable as are merchandising and personnel activities.
With all of its risks, management PR, planned to establish leadership, is among the strongest basic programs PR can engage in. This is especially true where managers are not anxious to devote personal time to community affairs. Perhaps for a yardstick most useful in determining how big is big enough, Ave can put together a program showing 90 days ahead in detail, and projecting a year of highlights.

Store Managers Weak on Promotion

Historically, top managers in big retailing stores were strong on promotional activities and other merchandising functions. As professional managers take over coming from backgrounds in accounting, finance, legal or market planning they tend to be highly PR conscious, but less skilled in promotion techniques. With their high level experience in PR, they may view employee and sales promotion publicity as "boy's work." That attitude is common among top managers in consumer manufacturing industries. The career practitioner who has been in a big retail organization for a year or two should devote time to appraising the management's attitudes toward the store's growth direction. If it appears that the aim is to build a good neighbor reputation, he should move toward stronger projects involving the manager. If its aims tend toward "good place to work" emphasis, PR should move with it. Perhaps the most common reputation goals in all big stores are related to thrift and new ventures. Where they are paramount, PR should position itself to be in the thick of things.

While the vast majority of management in store units of chains still has years of retail experience before reaching top management, the trend is toward professional managers whose techniques dominate, rather than their familiarity with internal problems of retailing. This trend is already proving a boon for the industry's PR practitioners in utilizing their services for all types of communications. But it should be emphasized that these professionals are not familiar with PR and promotion techniques. The practitioner must guide them toward understandings that will make PR work more effectively.

Don't Forget Departmental Needs

When a practitioner has achieved management status that includes direct reporting to the general manager, and he has integrated his personal service into merchandising and functionally into personnel, he has the ideal set up. His greatest personal hazard will be forgetting his three ply role and gravitating toward the top. If he does forget that he works for all departments they may not complain, but everyone (inside) will know. His service to the manager will be vital, but on a limited activity scale. When he meets with the general manager his mission may be (monthly) to review his over all program or ask an opinion or approval on a marginal civic activity. He also will alert the president that the United Fund is conducting its annual drive next month, or remind him of other repeating managerial functions in the community or merchandising programs. PR will mostly listen carefully, make notes, and report by memo on possible PR activities that the manager suggests.

In the merchandising function his relationship is very different. Here he operates a program based upon events and activities. He establishes communications among department executives, such as merchandising or department manager, advertising manager and the coordinators. Everything that the department recognizes as promotable will be subject to PR programming but not by any means always PR programmed. Numerous colleagues in the department may ask that an activity be put in the PR program. The practitioner should make a note and bring it up, or be ready with it in the next planning meeting. When a casual suggestion of PR participation comes up in a meeting, it ordinarily will be discussed and approved or killed on the spot. When it comes up outside of a meeting, no decision is made. It is noted and discussed at a meeting.

In those two sketches of procedures, PR follows everything that is communicable in its integrated function, but dealings with management are on a review basis. Whenever the PR man starts running into the general manager's office with suggestions, ideas, or other clap trap, he is heading for trouble. A bad practitioner in a dual position can ruin a good manager and damage his own value. He should bring into his functional meetings everything he hears that may be useful. He should rarely suggest an activity that does not come from merchandising or personnel. Practitioners in dual jobs who follow this procedure become highly efficient. Those who drag in the general manager when not necessary only confuse their departmental function colleagues. They seldom will veto any management activity, but they usually see unnecessary management activities as bogus.

SUMMARY

Big stores, chains and discount groups have used PR widely since World War II; discounts to raise capital, chains and big stores to increase value of their name. Costs are the paramount problem, and greatest cost is employees.

Management PR is best road to advancement in career, but care must be taken to keep in touch with merchandising and personnel problems. Listen to their suggestions and review with management at monthly meetings.

QUESTIONS

How do you plan a project sheet for a store and/or branches?
What does PR say in monthly review of programs with general manager?
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