Handling curveballs in retail marketing

  • Opinion
  • April 21, 2015
  • Ben Goodale
Handling curveballs in retail marketing

Last year, I said that 2014 had all the promise to be an interestingly competitive year in the NZ retail scene, and it certainly was. Fuelled by a positive economy, the pressure of global online shopping options, new entrants to the market and technology starting to more strongly influence our shopping behavior, the ability to adapt to rapid change has never been more important. Some retailers are flourishing, while others are finding it tough.

But in retail, curveballs really are part of the modus operandi and have been since day dot. Basically, handling curveballs in retail is all about expecting to have them and being organized.

So what are the top five aspects to handling curveballs in retail? I’d put them as:

  1. Listening
  2. Reviewing
  3. Anticipating
  4. Speed
  5. Strategy


Actively monitoring what competitors are doing, whether in store or in marketing materials, is fundamentally important and this is something that needs to be done on a daily basis from a monitoring point of view, and then usually weekly from a reviewing and discussing point of view.  Occasionally this needs to be escalated in time of ‘war,’ but that’s all handled on an ad hoc basis.  Social media has changed this somewhat as consumers will often tell you if there is something to be aware of, a price you’ve got wrong or is out of kilter, a store issue, a ranging concern, whatever – so using social as a barometer of customer engagement is really valuable. 


Somewhat touched on above, but competitor reviews are really important especially when you are in a tough environment, perhaps being out-spent by your competitors. One retailer we worked with was annually out-spent by three times by its leading competitor but we used this as a challenge to work out how more nimble and focused we could be with the marketing, i.e. do less and do it better. 

Another important aspect to reviews, especially if conducted weekly by a senior team, is the ability to quickly make decisions and make things happen so that change can be effected within hours rather than days or weeks.  This systematic approach means curveballs are less cause for panic and more BAU.


Effective reviews can allow you to anticipate what competitor next steps might be, likely timing of activities, likely nature of them (as many retailers are quite predictable over the course of 12 months) and therefore plot your own activity.  This often applies to the timing of promotions, marquee sales, major seasonal events (for instance, Easter and Christmas). And reviewing international patterns can help you anticipate what local competitors might be picking up on.

It’s also about looking ahead at what’s new this coming year and when might a competitor want to take advantage of that. For instance, this year in NZ we have major events like the Cricket World Cup, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Nines… For some retailers in some categories, taking an involvement in these might make sense, and thinking about if your competitors might do that (and your response) is part of being prepared. 


At the heart of good retail is being able to be fast. Having systems to get new ads out to market fast, to be able to turn stuff around for TV, digital, press and radio with blistering speed means you can quickly turn a potential disaster into a triumph, or take advantage of a situation to maximize your brand. With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever before to be fast here, in fact you’re really only restricted by your own systems and how you work with your agency. Similarly, how you cascade information into stores to the frontline so they are on message.

In the last year we have turned around new ads for clients inside 24 hours and had them on TV or in the press to capitalize on macro situations which have eventuated. It’s not the normal way of doing things, but being able to is an important part of handling curveballs.


Possibly the most important aspect to handling curveballs is being in a position strategically that you are always ready. This includes developing your brand so it means something to consumers over and above day to day pricing or one-off range advantages (so a simple curveball isn’t going to hurt in the short term). Controlling direct ways to reach customers and prospects (ideally, one-to-one contact programmes, loyalty programmes, and social media allow you to be fast and personal to your ‘fan base’) also means your message reaches customers regardless of whether they see broadcast media and gives you much more insight into what individuals want; and allows you to develop a stronger relationship and precision target those most at risk from specific competitor activity.

It’s obviously different depending on whether you are in a price or range led business, and the nature of your competitors. Fundamentally, as retail is at the ‘adrenalin’ end of the marketing spectrum, being agile is what it’s all about. The above is the bare minimum of a structure required to manage the ongoing competitive environment and handle curveballs. 

​ ​

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