Sneak peek merchandising surprises

Memorable and experiential branding. Relevant products. Customer-centric service. A no-worries guarantee. Today, these are all standard operating procedures for most companies.

With this high bar the norm, how do you dare to differentiate? In her book, The OPEN Brand, Kelly Mooney encourages companies to be on-demand, personal, engaging and networked. Simply put, let the customers be in charge and find a way to connect them both to your brand and to one another.

I’ve noticed that more brands are opening up their “back rooms” to their customers. They are inviting customers in to see the inner workings of the brand — from the people behind the brand to sharing employees’ favorite products to showcasing the way products are created and how other customers are using the products.

This creative merchandising transparency taps wholly into a brand’s heart and soul. Sharing this insider knowledge both kindles customers’ desires to be “in the know” about brands they resonate with, and gives them stories to tell other like-minded friends and family members.

Smart marketers also seize these opportunities to learn more about their customers through these “networked” conversations. Writer Andre Gide encourages us all to “dare to be ourselves,” and that advice is applicable to brands as well. Brands that are transparent and feature OPEN merchandising strategies do indeed stand out.

So, just how well does your brand let go and let customers in? Take a look at how some marketers practice OPEN merchandising:

— Boden —

Earlier this year, U.K. apparel brand Boden ran a series of photos titled “The Story of a Boden Dress” on its Website showing customers just how a dress comes together for its brand. This series started with a frame of the ideas meeting and ran through to the finalization of the outfit as pictured in the catalog/on the Website.

This peek into backstage/back office production shows what Boden merchants do day in and day out. For customers, it’s a chance to learn not only how a dress is made, but about the care and attention that Boden designers put into their patterns, their color choices and stitching details. It’s an opportunity for Boden fashionistas to learn what makes this brand different.

— J. Crew —

J. Crew wants its shoppers to meet the woman behind all the design details, its creative director, Jenna Lyons. Her monthly “Jenna’s Picks” highlights her must-haves and might even rival Oprah Winfrey’s O list.

Another internal designer, Jenny Cooper, shares her favorite picks at the apparel cataloger/retailer’s children’s line Crewcuts. Customers love seeing these edited selections from style experts in the know. What’s more, the J. Crew Website gives customers a sneak peek at one of the merchant’s latest photo shoots.

— Lands’ End —

The E in OPEN is all about engaging. Lands’ End has this year focused on two categories by creating interactive product Websites to lure two different niche customer segments into two highly competitive product categories: swimsuits and backpacks.

The apparel merchant called these sites “The Island” and “Packland,” respectively. Both sites encourage customers to play in its brand.

On its main site, Lands’ End features a section called “What Moms Say” that networks the mothers in its audience and has product specific testimonials about those very backpacks.

— Chefs —

Chefs is a destination site for those cooks looking for the best in kitchen products. One way it differentiates from other well-known companies competing in that space is to take advantage of its customers’ competitive nature by offering meaningful contests.

At the time of this writing, the company has two merchandising-driven sweepstakes that customers can enter: Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home Sweepstakes (win a $1,000 Chefs gift card) and an America’s Test Kitchen Sweepstakes (win $5,000 worth of cookware plus $5,000 in cash).

As a customer-centric merchant, I appreciate the extra level of attention the marketing professionals at Chefs gave their contest entry forms. For the Julia (as in Child) and Jacques (as in Pepin) contest, in addition to having the customers submit their names and e-mails, the company asked a few brief but meaningful questions:

  • I tend to cook meals that are___.
  • In my kitchen, I’ll never be without___.
  • When it comes to food, I most identify with___.
  • My cooking idol/inspiration is___.
  • When I’m in the kitchen, I become__.

The answers to these savvy questions will be excellent conversation starters for their merchants to continue brainstorming innovative OPEN merchandising best practices.

— L.L. Bean —

While J. Crew’s tactic has been to feature just two of its lead designers, L.L. Bean opts to have its customers meet more of their merchants and designers via product videos.

For example, customers can spend just over a minute of time with outerwear developers A.J. Curran and Christine Wedge and learn precisely why the Ascent Gore-Tex Jacket may or may not be the one for them.

Again, customers get a sense of real people behind the brand who share many of their same personal outdoor needs/concerns.

— Orvis The Dog Book —

Orvis knows that dog lovers are a connected and passionate group, but the cataloger found out just how much when it received more than 5,600 entries to its Cover Dog Contest. CEO Perk Perkins writes in the opening spread of their catalog, “We learned a lot from this experience. For one thing, we learned that our readers and customers are one extremely talented bunch. We also learned that many of your dogs possess skills we never even knew existed. And, we learned that, at the end of the day, you really love your dogs. They represent family in the truest sense of the word, and your photos reflect that.”

This fall, The Dog Book catalog featured the winner front and center on the cover, with nine other favorite entries highlighted on the inside spread. More contest photos were sprinkled throughout the catalog, and one could watch the coverdog video online.

No doubt, Orvis gets dog owners. And it is apparent from this responsive outpouring, that customers resonate with the personal appeal of showing off their pets.

— PB Teen —

Earlier this year, PB Teen took the time to find out what was really important to its constantly evolving adolescent customers. One of the furnishings cataloger’s front covers depicted six teens with that exact question. Open the first inside spread and you’ll see their answers: recycling, their family, their room, the environment, music, surfing.

PB Teen then positioned its products around those concerns — what I like to call purpose-driven merchandising. Knowing teens value their space at home and consider their rooms a reflection of their personalities, a more recent catalog and Web feature revolves around a “Design Your Own Bed” concept. Very engaging, very personal.

— Title Nine —

Missy Parks, founder of women’s athletic apparel brand Title Nine, launched a Website titled “Time Out with Title Nine,” an online community for women on the move. It epitomizes the OPEN brand concept with subjects ranging from “Missy’s Musings” to “Working In Working Out” to “Focus On Product.” These encompass many of the sneak peek merchandising surprises previously mentioned: behind the scenes photo shoots, inhouse style experts’ picks, customer contests and more.

Title Nine has always made it part of its brand to feature model athletes on its site and in its catalog. Parks’ latest musing talks about learning curves. She invites answers from her customers to this question: “When’s the last time you tried something for the first time?”

So, I ask you the same question. After reading about some on-demand, personal, engaging and networked merchandising ideas, are you ready to try some of your own? Go ahead, be open!

Andrea Syverson ( is president of IER Partners, a brand and merchandising consultancy.

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