Recently I came across a word which I had never heard before: “Marginalia.” As I learned, it is a term used by literary scholars to describe the notes and scribbles left in the margins of books by past readers. An even more specific term sub-categorizes marginalia that is critical, even combative as “hostile marginalia.”
MAR-GIN-ALIA. At first it sounded like a negative phrase. When we discuss ideas or people as “marginal,” what we often mean is “unimportant.” However, when viewed from the perspective of those who study marginalia, reading between the lines (or outside of them, as the case may be) becomes an important means to discover clues about the thoughts, values and insights of the past.
In this respect, marginalia is anything but marginal. It is a bridge linking one to an otherwise remote personage. I began to wonder: Is there such a thing as “dollar store marginalia?” Could there be a way to capture the fleeting thoughts and opinions that are constantly forming in the “margins” of our day-to-day dollar store dealings? What can we learn from paying more attention to the “side notes” left by our clients and customers?
I believe that there is much to gain from learning how to interpret the subtle markings left by the people with whom we interact. The challenge lies in knowing how to read them. It can be difficult to take note of our own thoughts and opinions, let alone those of perfect strangers. It takes a keen eye to start registering the social clues left behind by others, but once you do, you will be able to understand much more about your business as well as your customers.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Think about the records left behind by each shopper who enters your dollar store: Transaction receipts, items discarded in favor of others, shifted displays, and perhaps an e-mail address or a phone number. These small details may seem trivial, but if given a second thought, they can form a cohesive idea of how customers feel about your general merchandise business.
For example, imagine a woman walks into a dollar store looking for children’s party favors. She looks around the store, finds the party section, debates different items while shuffling through a few displays, and ultimately puts a bunch of sticker packs on the cash wrap and hands the cashier her credit card. He rings the purchase through and she takes her items, forgetting her copy of the receipt as she exits the store. Can you spot the marginalia in this scene?
First, the customer did not display much interest in this dollar store. She did not stop to browse the shelves, she did not inquire after new or “hot” items, and she did not pause to look at impulse items displayed near the register. Therefore, we can conclude that the layout of the store is not grabbing the attention of its intended customers. Perhaps the store looks messy, the displays are outdated, or the variety of merchandise is lacking. Either way, once the problem is recognizable it can be amended. By taking note of the “marginal” manner of one disinterested shopper, the dollar store owner can properly take steps to fix a pervasive problem.
Another point: the customer only bought one type of item. Did you notice I mentioned that she purchased “a bunch of sticker packs?” When a customer buys only one type of merchandise, it is a sign that they are not receiving the proper level of customer service. Did the store owner or salesperson take an active interest in this woman’s retail needs? As soon as the customer walked over to the party section, someone should have been there to ask the right questions: “What type of party are you going to have? Does the party have a theme? Is it a special occasion party?” Once the customer is engaged in answering such questions, she feels welcomed into a friendly environment. She becomes much more receptive to merchandise suggestions.
Which brings me to my second point: It is imperative that all dollar store staff is knowledgeable about the products carried by the store in which they work! If you get new items, alert your staff and let them know what’s so special about these changes. Make sure all dollar store employees can come up with “add-ons,” or items that complement a customer’s existing order and increase the variety they take home. And above all, make it a habit to engage as many customers as possible in conversation. By creating personal connections with customers, you increase their trust in you, therefore increasing the likelihood that they will purchase more than just “a bunch of sticker packs.”
Finally, notice that the woman left the store without her receipt. Although this could be viewed positively as a sign that she does not intend to return her purchases, I believe it to be another negative indication of disinterest. If a customer leaves a receipt behind, it is likely that she does not see the purchase as “major.” In the scenario I gave, the woman clearly left her receipt behind because she had very little personal investment in the purchase. She came for party favors, she got some stickers, and I doubt she will be back again for any other reason. A forgotten receipt is a bit of marginalia that signals a forgotten retail experience.
Perhaps the study of “marginalia” should not be left to literary scholars. When we take the time to examine the signs left in the margins of our daily existence, we see that clear statements are hidden amidst the jumble. By learning to read what your dollar store customers are scribbling along the margins of your business interactions, you will gain a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. The rest is up to you …