Live from NEMOA: The End of the Big-Box Era?

Saratoga Springs, NY–Paco Underhill, founder/managing director of New York-based research and consulting firm Envirosell, knows a thing or two about shopping trends. His agency scours all points of the globe to identify and understand those trends, evaluating customer behavior and offering valued recommendations. Calling himself an “urban geographer” by trade–he used to rewrite cities’ zoning ordinances–Underhill told a rapt audience at the New England Mail Order Association Conference here that “our visual language is evolving faster than the written word.”

“We have to be cognizant of who I’m communicating to and what is my vehicle,” Underhill said. “One of the disconnects is that the way I see color is different from someone who is 30. Most retail companies are owned, designed, and managed by men, but we want women to participate in it. We need to make them female-friendly.”

Underhill said the basic tools of advertising, sales, and promotion are “rusty,” and because the population is aging, shopping habits are in transition. The fastest-growing chains in this country are ones that Underhill called “second-tier regional players” that are “antidesign”–stores that are long on functionality and short on style.

“Most of us were trained to fight wars, but in the 21st century we’re in a bar fight,” Underhill declared. “The era of big-box may be over. Our future is in some form of multichannel.”

Convenience, value, and significance are three critical areas multichannel merchants should focus on. “How do we get people comfortable? Having fun in print, online, on the phone are all critical parts,” he said. But making that human connection is an overriding priority. “Will we ever arrive at the era of kiosks at rest stops?” he wondered. “We’ve evolved to a different service model… Too many mediums are screaming.”

To truly understand shopping trends, Underhill said, there is only one solution: “Nothing is more important than going out and taking a look.”