Live from NRF: The Effect of the Melting Pot on Retail

New York–Before IBM’s Jeff Gagnon even kicked off the Tuesday morning session, the Jacob Javits Convention Center was rocking. In a departure from many industry presentations, those in attendance were treated to an eclectic mix of dancing, tumbling, and music, with members of the hybrid dance/musical ensemble pounding out a driving rhythm on an array of paint buckets, shopping carts, and coat racks. While this unique brand of street theater wowed the crowd, two large plasma screens explained that this fast-moving and diverse group of performers was a metaphor for the future of retail. One message read, “They know who they are and what they want…when they want it.”

After the presentation’s lively beginning, Gagnon explained that the challenges in the new retail world could be summed up by the need to appeal to everyone from “teens with camera phones to 80-year-old bloggers.” And, he added, it’s pivotal to create a shopping experience that is convenient, creative, and evolving and that allows for constant flexibility. “Many shoppers go out looking for one item in one category, but often come back with several items in multiple categories,” Gagnon said. “In today’s competitive marketplace, we’re all truly compelled to innovate.”

As for figuring out what makes certain people buy certain products when they buy them, Gagnon called on renowned psychiatrist and author Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille. The French-born Rapaille spoke of his boyhood in World War II when U.S. forces liberated France as a means of explaining that in many ways certain shopping habits are innate. “When customers do certain things, try to remember that they are acting on cultural habits–trends and mores they learned when they were young,” Rapaille said. “I got my first taste of American culture when I was five years old, and I knew I wanted to someday…be American.”

Understanding shopping in the U.S., Rapaille continued, is about understanding the melting pot–that all Americans are children of immigrants, prone to the cultural tendencies of their given ancestry. “You have to understand different cultures and codes to understand shopping in the U.S.,” he said.

Rapaille talked about working on an ad campaign for Tylenol and how it best related to American culture. Whereas Tylenol was once marketed as simply a pain reliever, marketers feared it would not appeal to the younger demographic. Playing off what Rapaille deemed a “very American” saying of “No pain no gain,” the new slogan for the product became “Back into action,” to speak to consumers with a more active lifestyle.

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