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…]

Tracking and Winning the Revolution

revolutionHey, are we having fun yet? Let’s think about where we are today. Is it somewhere in the early exciting phase of the retail transformation that we know is possible? Or are we held back by the fear of failing to make this shift and ultimately be snuffed out?

Here is where we really are: At the intersection of the art and science of retailing, converging on technological steroids, serving an omnipotent consumer who expects and demands the satisfaction of their dreams wherever they may be, whenever, how and how often — and instantaneously.

Daunting, complex, disruptive — these are just a few of the ideas describing the awesome challenges facing us in this profoundly transformational era.

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers across all channels are in the process of seamlessly integrating technology, the Internet and m-commerce into the omnichannel model, while at the same time mining big data, configuring apps, and selecting from the endless stream of experience enhancing gizmos, gadgets and augmented reality for the delight of their shoppers. [Read more…]

Art Twain: Staying Loose and Coloring Outside the Lines

A Personal Retrospective

I don’t know where to begin with this story. It’s about retail, forgotten brand origin stories, advertising, and the golden age of radio. You might say it’s a trip down memory lane, but my instincts tell me it’s really a story that touches upon so many things that are so right now. Every time I hear someone talk about how retail taps into culture, or asks why we are suddenly devouring podcasts, listening to the radio, and enamored with the ’70s, I think of Art Twain.

Right around the time in the ’70s when advertising was changing and creatives took over from account executives, things started to get looser. With little guidance, retailers, brands and marketers were compelled to understand and respond to that cultural shift.

Enter Art Twain. He’s the marketing mastermind behind the original brand development of a little shop called Pants and Discs. He was also the account lead for that brand of “pants” which, at the time, barely sold east of the Mississippi. That shop would become the Gap and those pants were Levi’s. The fact that the Gap was born selling Levi’s and LP records is an origin story that has mostly been lost to memory. [Read more…]

Pirch, Lululemon, Cabela’s, Burberry, Apple: What Do They Have in Common?

Addictive-BrandsThese brands are not retailers.  They are neurologically addictive experiences, co-created by the brand and their dopamine-addicted consumers.  And not so incidentally, the experiences happen to take place in physical buildings. And oh, yes, because the customers are addicts, they buy tons of the brand’s stuff and they can’t get back to those experiences fast enough for their next fix.  By the way, for those of you who don’t know what dopamine is, it’s a chemical in the brain that gets released every time we have an elevated experience. It provides feelings of euphoria, self-satisfaction, wellbeing, and can lead to addiction.

The dopamine-releasing brands headlining this report (and there are others) are such because the experience they have developed requires that the customer participate in creating or shaping the that experience to satisfy their own personal desire at the moment they engage with the brand. [Read more…]

Happy Accidents

happy_accidentsOffering a wider assortment at every store helps increase sales while keeping complexity in check.

Less is more: This is the prevailing wisdom of today’s retail assortment strategies; assortments should be localized, limited, and carefully curated.

But, more often than not, bigger is better. Carrying a wider assortment in each store can boost sales without increasing cost, space needs or inventory. In fact, it’s possible to offer complete assortments while decreasing inventory. This sounds counterintuitive, but there’s logic to the strategy.

Why is the industry so fixated on slashing assortments? The “choice is a trap” and “paradox of choice” arguments — that consumers actually prefer only a few options instead of being confronted with a wall of choices — is gaining traction in popular culture and especially at retail. And, while it may be accurate in certain limited settings, it doesn’t hold true when applied to the industry at large. In fact, as assortment size goes up, sales always increase. [Read more…]

I’ve Got Mail!

Monitoring a year of Macy’s email…and living to tell about it.

First things first: My e-hat is off to all the programmers, merchandisers, web technicians, copywriters, graphic artists and digital geeks who run the Macy’s direct email program. Well done, guys. I am in a position to make this evaluation after what seemed a rather simple task: I would gather and save all the promotional emails Macy’s sent me as a customer over the course of one year. I began moving those messages rom my inbox to a separate folder on Jan. 1, 2014, and filed my last one at 11:46AM this past Dec. 31.

Simple my ass…ortment.

As a customer who had made home, apparel and jewelry purchases from Macy’s over the years, my inbox became a breeding ground for a promotional onslaught that neared biblical proportions. By any measure — quantity, variety, creativity or just plain audacity — my year with Macy’s email was memorable. First, the volume, which was indeed voluminous. I received an email from Macy’s virtually every day. Some days I received two. Occasionally, I missed a day, which I attributed more to spam filters than any lack of enterprise on the part of the store’s promotional department. [Read more…]

Is There a Serial Killer Loose in Your Corner Office?

serial_killerYou don’t have to be a criminologist to know that Serial Killers kill people. Retail Serial Killers (or RSKs) on the other hand, are, in my opinion, CEO’s who through their lack of skill, recklessness, disingenuousness, or gross incompetence, destroy the businesses they have been tasked to lead.

I believe that RSKs are the scourges of the retail industry. Businesses which have taken decades, if not generations, to become successful through the talent and hard work of dedicated teams, are murdered in short order by RSK’s. These RSK’s should never have been given the baton in the first place, or who, upon demonstration of lack of skill, should have been promptly removed from power when it became apparent they could not perform credibly. RSK’s are never indicted. In fact, they are often rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

Consider some of the retail industry’s most notable Serial Killers: [Read more…]