Brand Lessons for the New Retail World

With the last Christmas trees thrown to the curb, pine needles askew, let’s assume the retail industry is taking a breather and nursing a holiday hangover. Best not to break too long though as there are 10 more months to plan for and e-commerce to navigate.

In my world of consumer insights, it’s become trendy to trumpet the demise of brick and mortar retail. But it’s not going anywhere. The marketplace dynamic – a space to exchange goods for currency – is as old as civilization, and the concept of retail as theater can be traced back to the Middle Ages. There is something palpable and human and indispensable about brick and mortar. It’s not dead, it’s just reinventing itself.  And it should.

Because what we are seeing are shifts in what we expect from brick and mortar. Whereas once indicators of retail success were location and square footage – the Bloomingdale’s that anchors the mall, the 25,000 square foot Forever21 –  now it’s more about presence as evidenced by Bonobos, with its online footprint and only select physical guide shops. Once stores used every square inch for product, now there’s an emphasis on creating experiences so Sephora is ceding space to tables and iPads for online makeup tutorials, and Club Monaco is creating living room set ups for casual lounging.

Maybe we’re at a time and place – post recession, a healthier economy, gas prices down in most of the country, complex world around us – when retail is not just about the rational but is once again, inviting in the emotional. Good retail brands know that it’s not so much about the product purchased, but rather, the context in which if fits. The fun or thrill doesn’t really live in the new fridge; it lies in having arrived at that point in life when you can finally remodel your kitchen. In that case, shopping for, and buying that fridge needs to celebrate that moment.

To stand out in this retail landscape, think about developing relationships versus executing transactions. Some tips to consider:

Consumers. Know their universe. Know the person behind the buyer. What does her room look like? What are her interests? Her conflicts? The cold truth is that your brand is a fleck of dust in her vast life. Understand her deeply and you can better anticipate her needs. Urban Outfitters excels at this: Many UO stores have in-house DJ’s who create unique musical vibes, but also cater to its customers’ outsider music aspirations. Whether shoppers are really that cool is debatable, but while in store, they feel like they could be.

Clever technology. Technology needs to ease the shopping process. This is not just about efficiency; it’s about streamlining logistics so the customer only feels the pleasure, inspiration, dreaminess of the experience. The magic mirrors in Rebecca Minkoff’s fitting rooms solve problems and delight: They display items shoppers have sifted through, highlight chosen pieces, recommend others based on previous choices, and enable easy requests for other sizes. If you’ve ever walked through a store half-dressed looking for the elusive sixe X shirt, you know this is a small triumph of engineering.

The Human Touch. Ultimately, brick and mortar is about human connection. Let’s not forget that. Good retail brands know how to harness their assets to create these connections. Lululemon breathes life into its mission by conducting in-store yoga classes. West Elm hosts artist events, celebrating crafts people within the community. And Sur La Table has long conducted cooking classes that use its tools to demystify cooking.

Good retail is part strategic planning, part magic and theater. Evolution should be a mantra, not a fear. The customer is engaged in a relationship with you, and every good relationship requires upkeep and updating to rediscover its freshness and deepen.

Aliza Pollack is Vice President, Qualitative Research and Brand Development for Added Value.


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