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Are you listening to your customers?

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A thread currently going great guns on social networking site Mumsnet should make fascinating reading for Simon Calver, who takes over as chief executive of Mothercare on Monday with the brief of turning round the company's falling UK sales.

The thread, Mothercare?! – what are you DOING?! started a day after the multichannel retailer announced the departure of its finance director, Neil Harrington. It had more than 200 posts at the time of writing and is growing fast. It should provide an invaluable resource for managers of the company, since in it members of Mothercare’s core demographic – mothers – discuss exactly what puts them off buying from company.

There are many criticisms of the company contained in the comments, where key issues cited include unhelpful staff, a lack of in-store stock, and high prices, but what shines through is that many of the contributors did want to buy more from the company, but don’t. “I have never known it so hard to spend £40,” writes one poster of choosing what to buy with Mothercare vouchers.

Harsh. Nonetheless this should be required reading for Mothercare management, which recently launched a turnaround programme for its UK business in the face of falling sales in this country (although international sales are growing fast). For at root, this is free research delivering information the company might otherwise easily spend thousands sourcing through focus groups, with some very useful analysis to boot.

But this should also serve as a reminder to all retailers about why negative comments on social media, whether forums such as Mumsnet, or publicly-viewable networks such as Twitter, are really very useful. For when people talk on the internet – just as in real life – they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what they’ve bought and what they’re going to buy. By listening in, retailers can find out what works for their potential customers – and adapt accordingly.

Since ONS figures suggested this week that we have entered a double-dip recession, hard times are inevitably ahead and companies will be working harder for every sale. Even before news of the recession, the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank predicted this week that the health of retail would worsen to record levels before it got better. It predicts its RTT Retail Health Index will fall to an all-time low of 77 by the end of June.

Helen Dickinson, partner and head of retail at KPMG UK, said that while the first quarter of 2012 had not been as “dire” as expected for retailers, “there will be a latent effect going into quarter two as the stark reality of the economy starts to take its toll on consumers in the coming months.”

If that’s the reality, then it seems listening to what customers want will be important for those who are to survive. And social media is one obvious place to do that, whether it's your brand or another that consumers are talking about. So, are you listening to your customers on social media? And if not, why not?

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