Features, Trends

Unleashing the Retail Muse

I am not Amish, a Luddite or one of those people who long for the simple agrarian life of the 19th century when the most recent innovation was shock absorbers for horse-drawn wagons.

But as the world swoons over drones, driverless cars, robotics, flying warehouses, VR, A.I., IoT and other acronyms, are we approaching technological overload and the devaluation of retailing?

Are we so caught up in finding groundbreaking technology and telling digital consumers why system 3.0 is better than system 2.0, that we forget that keeping things interesting for customers is what made retailing great in the first place?

In the final analysis, customers remain interested, as long as they want what you sell; and there are plenty of examples out there of what customers want — from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Love Hotels

With occupancy rates down and terrorism stoking fear among travelers, French luxury hotels like Accor and Marriott are saying, “All You Need is Love.” Long thought to be the purview of seedy establishments, upmarket hoteliers are renting rooms by the hour for couples who just want to get away from the kids for a while — or for those looking for a little noontime diversion.
Using a site called Dayuse.com, you can rent an $850 a night room in Paris for a little over $100 between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. If you’re feeling particularly spunky you can add another $40 to $70 for a “love box” with adult toys or a bottle of Champagne.

They’re not quite as liberal in their thinking in Memphis, Tennessee. Bass Pro Shops, one of the preeminent outdoor retailers, has brought visual merchandising to a whole new level at the Memphis Pyramid, a 535,000 square-foot superstore on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi—a learning lab for any retailer who thinks they have a handle on the overused phrase “creating a customer experience.”

The Great Indoors

Even for those whose idea of roughing it is a dirty martini with only one olive, this is lifestyle retailing at its best. It’s not just a sporting goods store. It is a nature center with an aquarium, waterfowl habitats, live alligators, archery and pistol ranges, restaurants, a bowling alley, seminar rooms and the centerpiece is the Big Cypress Lodge, patterned after a duck hunting camp with 105 rooms overlooking the retail selling floor.

Smaller, but with its own sense of retail whimsy, we have the Zombie Apocalypse store in Las Vegas that sells everything from survival blankets to children’s books on how to deal with Zombie attacks. Or consider the Time Travel Mart in L.A. where you can pick up some robot milk or dinosaur eggs.

Sound ridiculous? Well, on first blush so does the idea behind Pirch, the most recent Manhattan retail sensation where you can make an appointment to try out some 30 different showerheads by—well, by taking a shower!

One other thing I’d like to explore in depth in a later rant, is the lack of creative window displays, which may not by themselves sell merchandise but it tells people who you are and acts as a “decompression zone” before they walk in a store.

Window Shopping

When I was a boy—perhaps a strange one—nothing was more thrilling than seeing the tableaus at stores like Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz, Macy’s, Bergdorf’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bendel’s.

To lose that creativity and the fanciful human touch of some retailers I’ve talked about here is an admission—one that I’m not willing to make—that an app is just as good as the tactile experience.

Technology is a tool, a valuable one in the hands of a skilled workman like a wrench or a screwdriver, but a tool nonetheless. It is one solution, not the endgame.

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