Features, Strategy and Operations

All the World’s a Stage – Or Is It?

Imagine owning Carnegie Hall and not ensuring that each performance was so special and so distinctive it would be considered ovation-worthy by your audience. Now imagine owning iconic retail stages across our nation and not having the organizational creativity for merchandising and presentation to ensure an ovation-worthy presentation of products and services to entice and entertain your consumer.

After walking through countless stores across the country, I believe the ovation-worthy retail experience is exactly what’s missing in brick-and-mortar retailing today. Retail stores have stopped being attractions. They have stopped entertaining the consumer through distinctive merchandising. They have walked away from the art of creative merchandising that stimulated impulse purchases. And it is no secret that all of this is taking place at the worst possible time. Not being a destination for consumers is the primary reason brick-and-mortar retailing is having difficulty attracting footfall traffic through their doors. At a time when almost limitless technology moves the new and novel to consumers at the speed of light, most retailers are barely walking while they try to compete.

It’s not the web that’s the problem.

Retail management today shows little sign of understanding that their only hope for survival is by making their stores into attractions through distinctive merchandising and creative presentation.

The truth is that consumer traffic through just about every major retail door in our nation has been dramatically reduced in recent years. There are many reasons for this. Too many retailers and investment professionals expound the same excuse: “It is the fault of online shopping that has decreased store traffic.” However true this might be, the stage is set for new challenges they aren’t facing.

I have always believed that a bruising challenge is not a death sentence. It is simply an opportunity to rethink the business. It is an opportunity to look at the business with objective vision. It is an opportunity to evolve. But most importantly, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate how we do business today.

Walk in the Shoes of the Consumer

So how do we get started? We must look at this business through the eyes of the consumer. When they walk through our doors, what do they actually see? Unfortunately, too many retail professionals today don’t have that natural instinct. Professionals seem to forget what made retail stores great when they were competing to increase their share of the market and what created double-digit growth and profitability.

When I visit stores today, there is no real indication of passionate, retail management-driven merchandising, which tantalizes the senses of the shopper and generates sales. There’s nothing that justifies leaving the comfort of sitting in front of the computer surfing the web. Certainly, big box stores are not an attraction.

But there was a time when visiting stores was actually fun.

Back then, a ride on the store escalator slowly unveiled selling floors alive with discovery and innovation. Merchandising was an art form. Shopping was an adventure. Today, there is little distinctive merchandising and few visually exciting presentations to stimulate the consumer. Stores have lost sight of how entertaining the consumer through distinctive merchandising and presentation is at the heart of our industry. What is even worse, today’s retail management has little idea of what is missing.

Designers Hold the Cards

Why has distinctive creative merchandising become a thing of the past in our iconic department and specialty stores? I believe some of it can be traced back to when designers became not just celebrities, but rock stars.

When major department stores negotiated with designers and fashion brands to build an in-house designer shop to the client’s specifications, they failed to anticipate that before long every major department store would negotiate for the same consideration. Today, designer shops and fashion brand installations are everywhere. As it turns out, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Designers demand the best possible location on the selling floor. While this might sound sensible, it results in the store’s own merchandising being shifted to a lesser location. Soon, stores started to look the same while eroding their own department store identity along with their long-established customer loyalty.

To insure strict image compliance, the designer brands also started to dictate assortment strategy-the number and types of products displayed for consumers. Almost overnight, the lifetime career buyer became a thing of the past. Now buyers work for two to four years before they move on to other responsibilities with the organization. As a result, buyers are not given the time they need to hone their craft and become a force for their store and in their respective merchandising markets. Hence, they develop little-to-no interest in distinctive merchandising. Why bother?

Today, most department stores are really mini-malls within a store, thus eliminating the exciting challenge for the buying line to be creative in partnership with their markets. That partnership in the past was what fostered the store’s own brand of distinctive merchandising and made the selling floor an adventure for the consumer.

Retail Theater

Was there anything more entertaining in retail then visiting Henri Bendel’s ever-changing street of shops? On any given Saturday afternoon, it was impossible to walk the aisles in Bendel’s and not rub shoulders with the glitterati usually found on Page Six in the New York Post. Remember the Olympic Way in Harrods of London? Or Harrods’ famed Food Halls? Or Saturday’s Generation at Bloomingdales, where you were almost always guaranteed to meet friends unexpectedly? Walking through the amazing Fortnight at Nieman Marcus was like being instantly transported to countries most of us could only visit on the big screen.

And nothing has ever come close to the attraction of the Macy’s Cellar and its 25-foot wide esplanade of shops featuring home products from around the globe. When was the last time we saw a 25-foot aisle in a store without sale merchandising fixtures running down the middle? Macy’s Cellar established just what an iconic flagship store was meant to be. These merchants understood retail theater and attracted consumers in unprecedented numbers to walk through their doors and experience merchandising entertainment.

The tools within retail organizations that support high volume and profits through distinctive merchandising and creative presentation can be redeployed. These tool kits include management’s vision, in-store creative events planning, dedicated brand building, creative merchandising presentation and fashion trend and direction.

Retail impressarios understand that traffic-stopping creative window presentation is absolutely necessary to entice consumers to walk into their stores. And, as unrealistic as it might sound today, these visionaries share the organization’s infectious passion for the business 24/7. I believe that this passion still exists, even if it’s found in just a few people.

Given time, support and the proper stage, it can flourish once again. But it requires remembering what once made retailing great. To quote Winston Churchill, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

To this very day, I am thankful for the amazing opportunity I was blessed with to be part of one of the most exciting and stimulating industries known to our economy. With all I know today, I would still choose retail. Like many professions retail is not for everyone. It surely is not for the faint of heart. But if you are cut from the right cloth then consider yourself blessed. It is a business that can transport you on a career path to unexpected places and meet surprising people on your magic carpet ride. I highly recommend it.

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