Most retail experiences suck. They just do. It’s rare that I go into a store and leave feeling amazed. I might be happy with what I bought, but beyond that, the experience is usually “Meh.” And some retail experiences are so bad that you leave the store angry, even if you did buy something that you went in wanting.
Chris Brogan recently complained about a particular retail experience and the discussion is heated to say the least. For that reason alone I think it’s worthwhile; it’s good for these sorts of things to get aired publicly on a popular site like Chris’ blog.
I haven’t had any atrocious retail experiences recently, but it’s bound to happen with the Holiday Season upon us. But while on a recent shopping excursion with my wife, I couldn’t help but think that retail stores could do so much more to attract, engage and excite people. Like in the world of startups, there are too many “me too” retail stores, and they do nothing to really stand out, be memorable and generate critical buzz for themselves.
So here are some thoughts / ideas / ramblings on the retail experience:
It Starts with the Brand:
The brand in retail is so insanely important. This just can’t be overstated. Retail stores & companies have to stand for something more than their product. In fact, they’re not really selling their product at all — they’re selling something else. An experience. A belief. A higher purpose. S-O-M-E-T-H-I-N-G.
My wife recently received a gift card from lululemon. It came in a small bag. On the bag it says:
“lululemon athletica creates components for people to live longer, healthier and more fun lives. If we can produce products to keep people active and stress-free, we believe the world will become a much better place.”
And here I thought they sold overpriced pink sweatpants. Clearly they don’t. The bag has a bunch of sayings on it, things like “Do one thing a day that scares you.” And, “Life is full of setbacks. Success is determined by how you handle setbacks.” And, “Creativity is maximized when you’re living in the moment.” Damn! Now I want a pair of pink sweatpants!!
That’s a brand.
Brands don’t live forever, they need to evolve and fight to stay relevant, but they sure do have a huge impact.
You Can’t Compete on Price:
One of the stores we were in was having a 70% off sale. The place was packed. But that’s at 70% off. I wonder what it looked like at 25% or 50% off? Most retailers are already offering that level of sale a few days into a new season. And what happens when 70% off isn’t enough? Now I want 80% or 90% off. Price isn’t a competitive advantage anymore. And it’s certainly not an advantage that smaller retailers can leverage. Walmart = Low Prices. You can’t win that game. So what else can you offer?
The Element of Surprise!
Retail stores should be leveraging surprise. I don’t even think it would be that hard. Surprise drives word-of-mouth — and that’s what stores need. They need lots and lots of people talking about them. I had a couple simple ideas while I was shopping:
- Hourly giveaways. Get a megaphone, a stool and some tickets. Hand out tickets to people in the store. Every hour, stand on the stool and call out ticket numbers. The winners get $50 off their purchases right then and there. That’s not a sale, or competing on price. It’s just fun and a surprise. You can make it even more fun by doing it at random times. And don’t just use boring tickets, print nice tickets with something meaningful on them (tied to your brand.) It becomes something that everyone in the store collectively experiences and enjoys.
- Cross-store promotions. Instead of offering people a coupon or discount on their next in-store purchase, why not offer them a deal at another store? And have that other store do the same thing for you? Two non-competing but related stores could increase the foot traffic between them and build some nice loyalty.
- Play 20 Questions. Guys always dread the questions they get from their significant others: “Does this make me look fat?” “How is this color on me?” “Do you think this is too long? Too short? Too tight? Too baggy?” A smart clothing store would print out cards with answers to these commonly asked, often feared questions with great answers such as, “You look gorgeous.” “That color doesn’t do your beauty justice.” “I don’t know, but I love you.” “Just buy a shorter skirt to go with the longer one, so you have plenty of variety.” I’m being a bit ridiculous here, but in no way trying to be condescending to anyone. Everyone would know it’s a joke, but they’d get a laugh out of it, and I guarantee you it would get people talking.
Honesty is the Best Policy:
I actually saw this in action — A woman walks up to a salesperson and asks, “Does this look good on me?” Since she’s already asking we can assume she’s uncertain. Most of the time I’ve seen salespeople say, “Of course! It looks fabulous.” (Translated: Buy! Buy! Buy! And buy some more. And get out of my face. Unless you’re buying right now!) But the salesperson in this case replied, “Actually, I don’t think that suits you…” And then she followed up with a very reasonable, seemingly honest explanation. The woman kept nodding in agreement; she just needed support in her non-buying decision.
You can bet the woman was happy that she was “talked out of the purchase” (instead of going home, doubting herself and being frustrated by a pushy salesperson). You can also bet that the woman spent more time in that store, bought more stuff and told her friends about the great, honest service. For the scorekeepers among you, that equals: Engagement + Money + Word-of-Mouth. That’s like a Holy Trio..
The employees in a retail store are so important. You can have the best brand, marketing, word-of-mouth in the world, but if you get one lousy, unresponsive or grumpy employee you – as the consumer – walk out pissed. And when you’re pissed you complain a lot. We tend to complain more publicly than praise.
In two stores I was in over the weekend I was being “processed” by employees who were asking other employees about taking breaks. One employee was ringing up my stuff and asked the girl next to her, “If you work 10 hours how many breaks do you get?” And I care, because?
Motivating low-paid employees in retail stores has to be tough. But we’ve all experienced great service in shops and restaurants where the employees make all the difference in the world. So figure this out. And fast.
Retail Experiences Don’t Have to Suck:
It’s really as simple as that. Some of the retail experience is challenging. I think motivating employees might be one of the hardest things to do on a consistent basis. Brand building is too. But there’s no excuse for not building a brand, finding strong (and real!) differentiators, integrating in exciting marketing with surprise, and pushing your staff to perform on a consistent basis. (Incidentally, there are critical lessons here for all businesses and startups.)
I know there are great retail stores. And I’d love to hear your positive experiences (as well as your negative ones.) I’d love to hear your ideas on how retail stores can put the WOW! back into their existence.
images courtesy of shutterstock