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Our commercial offer…selling to WHOSE taste?

Maria Segarra, retail specialist and director of Competitiveness and Training at the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce

For many years, when tourists came to Barcelona one of the things they remarked on with regards the city and its commerce was the possibility of finding products geared towards creativity and the avant-garde.

It’s true that our city is closely linked to design and the creative arts in general, and at the end of the day that also comes across in our commerce.

Catalonia’s commercial tradition and its evolution has given us stores with a longstanding tradition of customer service that simultaneously uphold their signs of identity. Brand, product and a certain degree of savoir-faire are the elements that comprise a company’s core.

When that company works in commerce, it’s clear that the store and its products comprise the perfect stage and staging. And that’s where the matter at hand comes in…until recently our city attracted a certain type of foreign tourist (usually central European) with purchasing power, and one of the things they valued in this open and outgoing city was the fact they could find a product with a particular style and personality.

However for some time now the sort of tourist our city attracts has constituted a new type of consumer, very often from an emerging country.

This fact, which is still a major opportunity for commerce in terms of tourist spending potential which largely takes place in our stores, is now raising questions in other aspects.

For some time now we have been hearing about business owners forced to start buying different types of products (we are talking about a multibrand store in the fashion sector) because they felt that their regular customers (both Catalan and Central European) had started to drop off as a result of the crisis, making the shop owners keen to take advantage of the opportunities that arose from the influx of tourists from other places.

This ability to adapt to change, the versatility that allows a store to quickly offer its customers what they want, is something our commerce has and must continue to have. But we also have to be careful: have we measured the risk that a decision like that can entail? I am reminded of the conversation I got into with a business owner, in which I to some extent pretended to be the voice of his conscience, asking what he thought would happen when the new wave of wealthy tourists disappeared, telling him there were other things to consider, such as loyal customers and so on.

This summer, reading editorials such as the one on the cover of La Vanguardia of 18 August “Russian Tourism Down 20% in August…Sector Expresses Surprise and Limited Ability to React”, I thought back to that conversation from a few years ago.

Things change, like they always do, and now the rouble is weak and official signs from Russia suggest we cannot guarantee the 60% of Russian visitors that Catalonia attracts.

The rules of the game are changing so fast and it is so vulnerable and weak to depend on the demands and whims of any particular fashion and the purchasing habits of a country that intermittently performs well that it scares me to think of the result of decisions like the one mentioned above…indeed just this month other sources of international information, including Global Blue, were explaining the fall in tourist purchasing in the fashion and high-end sector in London as an effect of the Russia/Ukraine crisis and the drop in the number of Chinese tourists travelling.

In any event, remember the risk behind certain decisions and applaud the efforts of the many leading business people and firms who have continued to work on their product, adding new values to make them richer and providing them with more personality and better quality service, but without losing touch with what makes them special. In short, implementing all the factors that have guaranteed the long history of many of these Catalan trading companies, which is the result of a job well done and of caring for their trade…the things that today go by the name of continuous improvement.

The article in La Vanguardia of 18 August (We believe….the Russians are weakening) ended by saying that it is important to remember that your best customers are also the ones that create the most dependence and that it is good to cultivate alternatives if you don’t want to go out of business.

All up, it gives us plenty to think about and therefore to do…

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