The art of merchandise curation

Oct 03, 2011 9:30 PM  By

Merchants wear many hats within multichannel organizations. They are trend synthesizers, product experts, customer listeners, storytellers and brand-builders. They are often the passionate founders of unique offerings to a targeted niche audience (think Chuck Williams of venerable cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma).

Merchants interact closely with myriad professionals throughout their organizations — marketing, creative, customer service, forecasting, inventory control and research.

But one main task is at the very heart of all they do: the art of curation. A merchant’s carefulness, focus, expertise and intuitive human touch are what help set one brand apart from another.

Most people think “museums” when they hear “curate,” but the word’s holy origins started in the mid-14th century from “curatus,” or “one responsible for the care of souls.” In today’s economy, the metaphor of thinking of merchants “taking care” of their customers in this important way is particularly fitting.

The curation role of merchants is becoming more critical as consumers are inundated by more choices than ever. Barry Schwartz first addressed the perpetual state of overwhelmedness we live in his book, Paradox of Choice.

More recently, Steven Rosenbaum’s book, Curation Nation, takes readers on a broad sweep across many industries to prove his point that “curation is the only way to be competitive in the future.”

All sorts of experiences are being curated these days, from retail giants such as Walmart opening smaller Express stores to Path, The Personal Network space that curates your thousands of Facebook “friends” to 50 of your nearest and dearest. Our overstimulated environments are demanding help from companies and people who care about helping you navigate all the choices.

Let’s take a look across a few different categories and see how various merchants have been curating their brands in creative ways.

As curators, merchants CARE.

Merchants listen deeply to their customers’ needs. Most women know J. Crew’s president/creative director Jenna Lyons by her first name. The “Jenna’s Picks” each season are long awaited and pored over.

In the apparel cataloger/retailer’s summer collection, Jenna cleverly showcased how one shirt would look on nine different women — all J. Crew employees.

Jenna gets her customers. She realizes that while some customers are “do it yourselfers,” most need and want a little help. She uses her expertise to embolden J. Crew’s passionistas and fashionistas to make the most out of their purchases.

As curators, merchants FOCUS.

Boden, the U.K. apparel retailer, takes a playful approach to all it does. A recent catalog insert focused on “5 Really Good Reasons to Get To Know Boden Better.” Here are just a few:

We believe that color makes you happy. We love using natural fibers.

And, mix in the caring from above:

We believe in treating customers like old friends.

Merchants help brands highlight the products and processes that mean the most to customers.

As curators, merchants CHOOSE THE VERY BEST.

When I was a merchant at Current, a direct marketer of social expression and gift items, one of the most important biweekly meetings that merchants attended was called “choosing.” Each merchant presented her product submission to the team and three competitive findings related to that item.

We then discussed its uniqueness, brand fit and competitive edge quite thoroughly before an item was chosen — or not — for inclusion in the catalog. With Hallmark as our competitive Goliath, we were up against stiff odds. Our mid-American moms counted on us to offer them original, value-driven cards, gifts and gadgets that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

Merchants still make tough choices on behalf of their brands. The folks at Giggle, a new parent-focused multichannel retailer of baby products, boldly share their merchandising criteria with customers.

Founder Ali Wing notes: “Every product goes through a rigorous selection process and must meet at least three of the criteria to be included in our store.” This type of “trust-mark” endears the brand to parents.

As curators, merchants PUT THEIR PERSONAL STAMP ON PRODUCTS.

Paul Tarvin is one of those entrepreneurial founders still enthusiastically involved in important product decisions for his company, upscale home and garden products Frontgate.

Tarvin’s name and product endorsements are sprinkled liberally throughout the offer. Customers trust his expertise when he claims “World’s Finest Pool Floats.”

The merchant’s website reinforces: “Since Frontgate’s inception, the focus has always been on courteous, personalized attention.”

The chairman/CEO of home decor and furniture cataloger/retailer Restoration Hardware, Gary Friedman, puts his personal touch on products in a slightly different way.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter to his customers that Friedman posted on the company’s home page.

“In the past year, while many chose to lower quality to reduce prices, we chose to be the defiant troublemakers of our industry, raising quality and elevating design. Today’s Restoration Hardware is a personal expression of what we believe in, design we are passionate about, produced by artisans who in their own right are creating a cultural revolution.”

Friedman’s closing reminder to brands is to be themselves and to be authentically true to a point of view.

Merchants offer customers significantly important “human touch” benefits through their fine art of curation. Have you thanked your merchants today?

Andrea Syverson (asyverson@ierpartners.com) is president of the consultancy IER Partners and author of BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Playbook for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.