Several weeks ago, a colleague asked me which retailer(s) I thought were genuinely innovative.
For me, “innovative” and “retailer” rarely fit in the same sentence, but, my immediate response: Carvana.
Disruption for Detroit
The world of used, or previously owned cars will never be the same. It has now been transformed into a fascinating, fun and, dare one say, festive shopping experience. Carvana is a totally reimagined catalytic wonder-what-it-would-be-like moment of new car ownership all the way through to the thrill of delivery and beyond, with an unambiguous return policy. Think of it. What used to be the most anxious shopping experience, e.g. negotiating for a used car with the dreaded, untrustworthy used-car salesman has been transformed into a cool, hot visionary event. Exciting, effective, transparent and, yes, word-of-mouthable.
Reimaging Traditional Retail
Carvana is a lesson in rethinking conventional wisdom. For example, the headlines around the demise of traditional mall-based retail carry with them two messages. One, the unceremonious tumble due to Covid, and second, the much longer term and seemingly unrelenting malaise of retail’s indifferent appeal, lack of sales staff knowledge, declining margins, shoddy wares and compelling, convenience-redefining online competition — aka Amazon and its wannabes.
What, one cannot help but wonder: What could be done here? This question is directed at this moment specifically at those mall real estate development folks who are busy grabbing up once valuable brandmarks and hoping to maintain sufficient allure to return foot traffic to their holdings. But, what if JCPenney could be re-imagined?
How to begin? At the door. As you enter, have your body scanned, and precise measurements saved to your phone. As you walk through the store, you simply take a photo of merchandise you’d like to consider and it appears on your photo, exactly as it would look on your body. You don’t even have to undress in an unappealing, poorly lit dressing room. Nope. In JCPenney Redux, you simply point and shoot and there you are. Like it? Click and whoosh, it’s sent to you at home or awaits your pick-up at the exit.
Building on the Moment
The algorithm in the app you have downloaded knows better than you what you like and can go on to suggest other things to shop for while you’re in store. Indeed, the algorithm’s avatar coaches you as to the merits of which sweater would work best for your coloring, body type and the other clothes it knows you’ve looked at and like. Yes, it can also remind you to cut that vent stitch on the blazer, remove the label from the sleeve and arrange for the suit pants to be shortened before shipping them to you.
Your personal shopper avatar will take a look in your closet once you’re home, editing your wardrobe since you’ve been procrastinating for months. She will also tell you the resale value of each soon-to-be-jettisoned item, the best place to offload it and suggest where to send your coolest pieces to the newly launched JCPenney Redux Shop, the previously-owned, store within a store, retooled for today’s thrifting customer.
What Happens to JCPenney?
In my future-scenario, JCP gets an immediate and powerful repositioning into 21st century retail. This compellingly appeals to a younger audience than Ye Olde JCPenney could ever hope to attract, much less enchant. For another thing, there’s the tech-enhanced delivery of sales knowledge without the apparently insurmountable barriers to actual staff training. Ergo, a powerful reduction in headcount, including the security dogs at the dressing room gates, augmented by an uptick in remarkable margin accretive services provided by a staff with excellent alteration skills.
But wait, there’s more.
With the fusion of technology with merchandising, there will be fewer returns because of fit issues. With a better focus on item selection and fit, the margin eroding flop sweat of 60 percent off today discounting will evaporate. Then, too, with such a high level of personalization, there’s a return to loyalty. Why shop elsewhere?
In addition to the value accrued from JCPenney Redux repurposed apparel, there’s potential value for other recently acquired brands to be housed under the same roof. Of course, if my hypothesis is correct and this iteration of moribund JCPenney brings with it some measure of foot traffic, and the algorithm/avatar can be programmed to make relevant suggestions, then why not have it suggest do a good deed for the retail mall industry writ large and take a detour to nearby Brooks Brothers for that must-have white shirt? For the brands in the mall, it’s a no brainer. Potentially for the mall owners, it’s a revenue stream fed by the survivors who are co-located and want these tech-enhanced customers to come hither.
Bring Back the Fun
In short, the theory of avoiding retail obsolesce is to frame a story that is essential in our new reality. Actually, more than essential; fun. It starts, as all stories must, with a blank page. Not with an attempt to paper over dog-eared pages so faded as to be illegible. Those proud and legacy-ridden pages tell the tale of old retail. A retail so worn as to be irrelevant. Mall ownership is the legend of consultants and vendors. But no customer is wondering “wither Penney?” What might change that? We need a new, modern, joyous alternative. An approach so mind altering and fresh that it no longer seems to share the same root stock.
Think Carvana and the white space it discovered. Would you rather buy a used car by calling a number you jot down from a sign in its window? Or by entering the used car showroom with its multicolored pennants flying and promises of no credit check credit? Or might you prefer a used car sold through a vending machine? Used cars from all over the country served up on your phone or laptop and delivered to you, once you’ve made your choice after viewing scores of options, inside and out, thanks to its user-friendly interface.
Think Carvana in the same vein as Amazon and its book selling origins. Look what happened to Amazon. And to us. Or think Netflix. Remember when it was just a way to get old movies and BBC series sent to you in a red envelope through the mail? Look what it’s become.
The journey always starts somewhere. Why not with JCPenney? A few genuinely bold, imaginative steps and then a few more and pretty soon you’re very far from where you started. Pretty soon people are interested in where you’re going and thinking perhaps, maybe, they want to come along.