Supermarket Disruption and Dissolution

RR_Supermarket Disruption and DissolutionA&P’s Long Goodbye

For the second time in less than five years, A&P has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Two Chapter 11s in close sequence like that are sometimes cynically called a “Chapter 22.” But this is no joke. By the time it’s all over, a stalwart retailing name that started in 1859 on the site of what is now the One World Trade Center building in lower Manhattan will be gone forever.

A&P — once the nation’s largest retailer, spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific — already has buyers in place to take over a third of its 300 stores. These buyers include Acme (Albertsons), Ahold and Key Food. Another 25 stores will be closed outright. So roughly half its store fleet, which spreads from Delaware to upstate New York, will be rebranded immediately. A&P operates stores under the A&P, Pathmark, Waldbaums, Food Emporium, Superfresh and Food Basics banners, all of which will be involved in the sale or closure process — and already are. [Read more…]

At Your Service: Two Case Studies

TOP Shop John Lewis combo FinalIn the developed world, retailing remains under siege. As we know, a steady flow of new Internet competitors vie for consumer dollars, frequently undercutting prices of the brick-and-mortar stores. Meanwhile, amidst a sea of sameness with parity products, traditional retailers too frequently compete merely on price. In-store service levels have evaporated in all but the most high-end luxury houses or new entrepreneurial and tech brands, further propelling the “race to the bottom,” an industry trend Robin Lewis coined back in 2012. [Read more…]

There Is No Gap Déjà Vu

gap_RL_RR_7-15-2015More Like A Slow, Sears-Like Descent To The Bottom?

Glenn Murphy exits.  Art Peck takes over.  It matters not who the players are because there has been a revolving door full of them for the past 15 years, all declaring how they would return Gap to its once dominant position as the cool apparel brand for America’s youth.  All of them failed to do so, and there is no reason to believe Art Peck will have any better luck.  Actually, even luck would not be enough to reverse the ultimate fate of this storied brand.

I say this because the brand was driven into ubiquity (the anti-cool for young consumers, and therefore, the beginning of its end) in the late ‘90s and first two years of the Millennium under the watch of then CEO, Millard “Mickey” Drexler.  With a Gap on every corner, so to speak, cool turned to cold and its descent began. Ironically, Drexler would leave the helm of the brand that he guided through two decades of meteoric growth from $480 million in revenues upon his arrival in 1983 as president, to almost $14 billion in 2000, an amazing 2,400 percent increase when he left.  Indeed, his success earned him the moniker of the “prince of all merchant princes.” Unable to right the ship when it started to sink, Drexler retired in 2002. Comp store sales dropped 5 percent in 2000, their first decline since 1989, and then a whopping 13 percent in 2001, with the overall Gap brand down 12 percent. [Read more…]

Disruptors at the Door

blue_apronAnother batch of disrupters is eyeing the retail food industry. And, strange to say, they’re knocking on your door in a cardboard box.

These disrupters are meal kits. The meal-kit business is a fledgling form of retail food distribution that features the direct-to-home delivery of the precise measure of raw ingredients needed to prepare home-cooked meals. Each shipment contains the makings for several meals, generally six or more.

Meal kits are not to be confused with the home delivery of groceries available from providers such as Peapod, Amazon or Fresh Direct. Nor are they deliveries of prepared meals that are ready to heat and eat. Meal kits require that meal components be chopped, mixed, cooked and composed. Each meal kit includes detailed recipes replete with photos of ingredients and step-by-step preparation, making them all but foolproof. [Read more…]

Fiddling with the Roofs

roofs2Remember the old adage that “retail follows the rooftops”?

If you do, then you probably have fond memories of the Eisenhower administration, the post World War II suburban building boom when Sears Roebuck and J.C. Penney ruled the retail roost, and Sam Walton’s 5&10 variety store in Bentonville, Ark.

So much for nostalgia!

For 2015 and beyond, following those rooftops — the population centers retailers crave to be near — will get trickier. Fewer of them are being built, and they are no longer where they once were. Concurrently, premium locations are getting more expensive and some lenders, unsure of what new retail formats will look like, are keeping a lot of cash on the sidelines until they see another shakeout. [Read more…]

Home Stores are Living Large

big_stores_ikeaWhile everyone and his realtor knows all about McMansions and the oversizing of the Great American Home, hardly anyone is paying attention to the fact that the stores where people buy all the home furnishings products to put into those colossal-sized homes are also getting larger and larger.

In a retail landscape where market share is slowly but surely moving online and one-time physical store powerhouses like Linens’n Things, Circuit City and, just recently, Anna’s Linens, are now just mall memories, some retailers are moving in the opposite direction. Seemingly counterintuitive: Why would you move to larger stores with more inventory and higher breakeven points when many national chains are downsizing?  The surge to the square-foot splurge is happening with surprising frequency.

Furnishings operations like At Home (the retailer previously known as Garden Ridge), RH (the retailer previously known as Restoration Hardware) and Nebraska Furniture Mart (same name, but no longer confined to Nebraska) are opening bigger stores, with more to come. All of which raises the inevitable question: Is bigger better? Not that this is exactly a new question. Home furnishings stores have traditionally been larger than their apparel brethren, which of course makes sense given that sofas, big TVs and major appliances are larger than skimpy tops and short shorts. [Read more…]

By Design: The Studio Xfinity Experience

xfinity_studioWhen the Department of Commerce began tracking online sales in 1998, e-commerce made up about only 0.2 percent of all retail sales. By 2013, online sales had increased 50-fold. If that’s not enough to rattle brick-and-mortar retailers, note that at the height of the Great Recession in 2008-2009, online sales was the only retail category that kept growing. Today, with every imaginable product just a click away, retailers need to offer more than attractive wares to get shoppers back into the offline store, and the majority haven’t come up with a great solution.

Companies like Apple and Prada solve the problem with stores that invite customers to participate in a brand experience that encourages emotional connections and associations between consumers, the store and their products. These contextual retail environments are not only responsible for showcasing how the product works, they’re also stages for events and larger group experiences. These retail environments transcend the buying experience beyond a basic, primary function to gateways into a community, collective experience. [Read more…]

Birth, Life and Death: A Retail Cycle

murraysRob Kaufelt walked into Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ’90s and noticed a sign saying the store was closing after a 50-year run. The owners were tired, the neighborhood was changing, and the lease was up. Rob came from a family of grocers. He was a deli man who was used to getting up early and, at that moment, was out of work. His latest store had failed. On a whim, Rob made an offer on the business and was shocked when it was accepted. He moved it across the street for cheaper rent and started cutting cheese.

One thing led to another: Cheese classes, catering, wholesaling to restaurants, an e-commerce business, an outpost in Grand Central Terminal, a Murray’s Cheese Bar restaurant, and a deal with Kroger. By the end of 2015, there will be some 250 Murray’s Cheese outposts in Kroger stores across the country. Rob and Murray’s are evangelically getting Americans past Vermont cheddar and Wisconsin flavored Jacks. Whoever Murray was, he probably couldn’t imagine cheese becoming so chic, and his family is likely regretting not keeping at least a piece of the action. Rob, needless to say, is doing very well and has more grown-up toys than any man I know. [Read more…]

Retail Design: Much More than Meets the Eye

retaildesignThe character of the places where we live, work, and, of course, shop, have a direct effect on our thoughts and emotions — whether we are aware of it or not. Everyone is reminded of this when we enter a majestic cathedral or a grand department store. Or when we feel so vulnerable as we navigate the unfamiliar underground passageways of a subway. It is extremes like these that make us fully aware of the impact of space and place. Our acute sensitivity to our surroundings is always influencing our behavior — often unconsciously. When we shop, every aspect of the store’s design is acting on our emotions — whether we want it to or not. One could argue that these largely unconscious emotions are no match for our conscious reasoning when it comes to guiding our shopping behavior and purchase decision-making. Right?

Not so fast. The growing and compelling body of behavioral research popularized in bestsellers like “Predictably Irrational,” “Nudge,” and “The Power of Habit” all point to the unconscious as the unseen master of our frequently irrational behavior. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” argues that the unconscious is firmly in the driver’s seat. He says our “thoughts and behaviors may be influenced by stimuli to which you pay no attention at all and even by stimuli of which you are completely unaware.” Surprisingly, he found that in many cases we are, in fact, more strongly influenced by such subtle stimuli when we are not aware of them. He concludes, “The main moral…is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment.”

Space and Place

So what does this all mean for retail design? It tells us that every aspect of the retail environment matters because it directly influences behaviors and decision-making, and, therefore, has a direct impact on business performance. Yet many retailers do not consider the effect of store design a key metric. Consumers know the power of a place intuitively just by recalling various shopping experiences. Think how specific thoughts and emotions surface when shopping at edgy Urban Outfitters versus optimistic Uniqlo; or cheerful Target versus austere Costco; or at impeccable Chanel versus flamboyant Versace.

In each case, the retail environment is made up of a multitude of design components: light, color, materials, sound, scent, the shape and size of the space, etc. There is endless variety within each design element. Think of color, for example; each color affects us differently. To complicate matters, the ways these design elements can be combined is truly infinite. So how do we begin to make sense of the design possibilities?

retaildesign_2The Power of Storytelling

Before we choose and compose the elements of retail design, we need a story to tell. For branded retailers, that story is an expression of the brand identity. Sometimes called brand vision, brand identity is perhaps the most important concept in retail design because it serves as the inspiration for, and framework on which, a retail concept is developed. It is key to the success of the design, but brand identity is a concept that is often poorly understood.

When you or I, for example, think of the brand Burberry, various impressions come to mind. Some of those impressions might be quite simple — like its signature red, black and tan plaid or its classic trench coat. Some of these impressions might be more complex, likely inspired by some notion of Britishness. All of the impressions that exist in our individual minds can be thought of as “brand images.” They are the images that form in our minds.

Brand identity, on the other hand, is what the brand is saying, or trying to say. It is based on the brand’s core values, fundamental substance, and essential character. Brand identity is that unique combination of attributes that define the brand’s aspiration, promise or dream. It is “the center of the universe” that serves as a frame of reference and inspiration for everyone who works on the brand, not the least of all the designers of the retail environment.

So does every brand have a brand identity that can serve as the basis of great retail design?

When a painter sets out to create a portrait of a mythical figure, such as an ancient Greek god like Poseidon, Aphrodite or Dionysus the task is already halfway done because there is so much existing material with which the artist can work. For example, the nuanced character of the wine-loving Dionysus has been richly revealed in countless stories. The artist’s task is to interpret and then depict the character and temperament of Dionysus in a recognizable form. In the same way, the task of the retail designer is to interpret the brand identity and bring it to life in many dimensions. While every brand has a brand identity, it is not always as clear and accessible as the legend of Dionysus. Sometimes it is concealed, or worse, misunderstood.

Branded Environments

The character of the brand is also sometimes ignored by narcissistic retail designers who are intent on placing their own imprint on the store design, rather than serving as an interpreter of the brand. The first essential step in creating an engaging and powerful retail environment is a clearly articulated view and deep understanding of the brand identity.

Indeed, to maximize a brand’s economic contribution, all manifestations of the brand — retail environment, product, logo, promotion, service and even corporate policies — must reference the same “center of the universe.” In other words, the consumer-influencing power of the brand can only be fully realized when, as they say, everyone is singing from the same hymn book. Within luxury, we can see this coherence most clearly realized by Chanel, where a quietly elegant modern “less-is-more” sensibility is systematically applied across all product categories and promotional campaigns. The store is the physical manifestation of this sensibility where refined luxurious materials are consistently composed and applied with impeccable craftsmanship.

A different approach is Tommy Bahama’s brand identity. This brand is based on an idyllic, refined, tropical island lifestyle where one is more likely to wear silk shirts and tailored pants than Speedos and a T-shirt. The store design reflects and reinforces this vision through the use of sophisticated tropical references. In keeping with a refined aspirational aesthetic, there are no fishing nets draped across the ceiling, no faux pirate chests or Tiki totems. Instead, the island references are subtle, the materials refined — finely woven grass cloth, white bead board, wide-plank wood floors and ceiling fans. Caribbean wooden shutters are used throughout to evoke the memory of tropical sunlit days and balmy breezes. The store layouts are regular and ordered with a formality of design to reinforce the notion of a stately home. The result is pleasing, accessible and casual but also sophisticated.

At the Millennial end of the spectrum, Anthropologie’s bohemian “flea-market chic” stores have irregular layouts, mismatched furniture and fixtures, and authentic-looking folk-inspired art. The stores are celebrations of the strange beauty of imperfection. And, by inference, they acknowledge and allow you to celebrate your individuality. The coherent artisan store design actively brings the brand to life. It complements the eclectic merchandise assortment and helps imbue the product with cultural meaning — which ultimately justifies its price.

As consumers, we instinctively recognize retail environments as different as Anthropolgie, Chanel, Tory Burch, and Giorgio Armani, where the designs actively reinforce and reveal each brand’s identity. These retailers are exceptional. They have an integrated strategy that communicates their position and personality to consumers. Too many branded retailers fail to fully extend their brand identity to the store. This is a major missed opportunity. The store, as the center of the omnichannel universe, represents the most compelling opportunity to influence customer choice, leveraging consumers’ high sensory sensitivity to every aspect of their environment.

Solomeo, the Italian Medieval hill town surrounded by the fertile countryside of Umbria, is the headquarters of cashmere brand Brunello Cucinelli. The architecture, landscape, history and culture of this special place are a rich source of inspiration. This place, interpreted through a romantic philosophy, is at the center of the brand identity — which is beautifully revealed in the product and promotional campaigns — but not in the stores, which are generic gallery-like spaces. While the neutral retail environment focuses attention on the product, there is more to the brand than the product. And this is clearly demonstrated simply by looking at the rich Brunello Cucinelli digital presence. It won’t be easy, but it is time to bring this beautiful brand to life at retail.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for retailers to focus on using good design to bring the brand to life at retail is to satisfy the human heart and mind’s ongoing search for a coherent story. As humans, we are, to a fault, pattern seekers. We jump to conclusions and are wired to see a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Our natural instinct is to connect the dots, making visual and emotional sense of the seemingly disconnected threads of a story. Retailers can make our job as customers infinitely more satisfying by creating an integrated plan with coherent design that touches every part of our experience with their brand. It is not just pleasing; it is profitable.

Don’t Fall for It, Macy’s

Beware of The Eddie Lampert/Richard Baker REIT Syndrome

Macy’s is not in the real estate business; it is in the business of satisfying consumers’ dreams as one of the largest retail brands in the world. If Macy’s reduces one iota of focus on doing just that, they do so at their own risk. Therefore, it should not fall for the dubious pitch reportedly being made by some greedy hedge funds that Macy’s should form a REIT (real estate investment trust), an entity to which it could sell many of its valuable real estate assets and then lease the space back to the stores currently sitting on the space. In this creative financing scheme, the REIT profits as Macy’s cost of doing business increases. [Read more…]

Target Canada’s Ill-Fated Adventure

target_canadaIn what has to be one of the biggest retailing fiascos of all time, mass merchandiser Target has closed its 133-store Canadian division less than two years after it opened. Billions of dollars were lost.

Target’s misadventure in Canada holds many lessons for all retailers, including the very simple lesson that catastrophe invariably comes close on the heels of a retailer’s failure to offer consumers products they want at the price they’re willing to pay.

How could a retailer as big as Target is in the United States fail to grasp such an obvious concept as it moved across the border to Canada?

The answer is that pressures of competition and real estate forced hasty and ruinous decisions. [Read more…]

Retail Awakening

Entire store chains are declaring bankruptcy and liquidating; department stores are transitioning to specialty stores; the leadership carousel at the top of organizational charts is spinning faster than ever; and online retailing titans are … opening brick-and-mortar stores?

There may never have been such a tumultuous time in the retail industry, one both rich in opportunity and rife in peril — both simultaneously.

So, I ask you, as a retailer, how are you sleeping at night?

New Retail Reality

Retail is not “evolving.” The pace and scope of change makes it so much more than an evolution, and the term “revolution” has morphed into a rather tired, trite cliché. Label it as you wish, but retail’s new reality includes:

  1. A disruptive convergence of channels;
  2. A newly empowered consumer who is clearly in charge; and
  3. A deep understanding that what worked in years past won’t work going forward.

[Read more…]