Will You Succeed as a Retail Consultant?

So, you had a pretty good run in a number of retailers, worked your way up that ol’ chain of command and now that you are “in transition” you are thinking about becoming a retail consultant.  Looks easy: fly around, take some meetings, get paid to give your opinions and *poof* you are on to the next gig.  As a retail consultant since 2006, I have seen people who excel at making the transition and others who were miserable (or worse, made their clients miserable.)  Here are some things from this side of the desk to consider before you make the transition:

  1. Do you have a HIGH level of energy? Consulting has no real down time.  It’s a fairly demanding schedule and you need to have high energy to succeed.  Packing, traveling, renting cars and hotels, being “on” whenever you are with anyone from a client (Breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings are common) and working in your hotel room until 9 or 10 at night to do it all again the next day means you have to sustain long periods of high energy to succeed.  People who are not cut out for the duration of a 6-8 month engagement see stress pop up in fairly predictable ways: illness, stress at home with spouse and children, drinking, squabbles with co-workers, general grouchiness.  Think hard about it.  I have seen it take down more than a few retail consultants.
  2. Are you a quick study? This isn’t like accepting a job where you may have 3-9 months to catch on to the job and learn the ropes.  Retail consultants are expected to start producing insights and value by the second week on the ground.  You have to cultivate your focus to the point where details that might be overlooked in the first conversation are caught and analyzed for their impact on your project.  You need to quickly recognize the offhanded mention of a process exception or a system requirement as the obstacle it is or else risk making a recommendation that is impossible to implement.
  3. Do you have a marketable specialty? While general management executives with retail experience are needed, most retail consultants build their business by catering to their niche: financial planning, inventory management, etc.  My specialty is Space Management and Category Management/Merchandising.  While I certainly have much to offer my clients, my deep expertise in Space Management has tended to be the door opener.
  4. How big is your network? No doubt if you have a big network and are a known commodity, you will have an easier time getting doors opened to you as a retail consultant than if you have not been tending your network.  It isn’t impossible – you just may need to align yourself with a firm or agency that will open doors for you and market your skills rather than strike out on your own.
  5. Are you good at influencing decisions? As an executive you had a certain level of power to make decisions and expect them to be followed.  As a retail consultant, the best you can hope for is to make a strong case and influence the decision-makers to attempt your proposals for change.  I have seen several well-respected executives struggle in their role as retail consultant as they grew more and more angry over their client’s inability to “see what is plainly before them.”  The frustration usually ends with a poor client relationship and a bad reputation.

If you are cut out for it, retail consulting is a rewarding career choice.  But if you cannot honestly see your strengths in these questions, you may be better served to think about other options.

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