The Jobsian Era is Upon Us: The Art and Science of Retailing Converge

Steve Jobs did not create either the art or science of retailing, but he quintessentially defined its convergence. Therefore, I think it’s appropriate to attach his name to this era we are just now entering.

Let me be very clear. This is not, I repeat, not another story about Apple’s incredible retail experience. And, it’s not just about how Jobs, who didn’t graduate from college, understood the technology well enough to know how far he could go in creating its “art,” its magnificent design along with the ease and fun of its use for consumers.

It’s about how Jobs, and his right brain artistic skills, happened to either start technology’s third iteration, the era we are now in, or at least crystallize and accelerate this convergence of art and science.

The first phase, some 30 years ago, defined the early use of the Internet and all of its contiguous technologies, unleashing globalization, and unlocking incredible efficiencies and speed in the “back end” of the supply chain. The next evolution was its explosive generation and delivery of information and the early beginnings of e-commerce 20 years ago. And, now, what I call the “Jobsian” era, converging art and science at the “front end” of the supply chain, connecting consumers with compelling experiences.

Another genius of this era, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, who by the way had degrees from Princeton in computer science and electrical engineering, is known less for his use of the “art” of retailing, and more for how he pioneered the science of the Internet into the juggernaut of all juggernauts, creating an entire global marketplace where anybody can set up shop, selling anything and everything to the world. (See our feature story on Amazon.)

The important difference between these two giants is that while they both relentlessly focused on satisfying the consumer, they diverge on how to do it. Both, in their own words, would likely agree that providing a “compelling experience” for consumers would be the ultimate goal. However, Bezos, favoring the left side of his brain, would understand how the technology could provide access to anything and everything, for low prices and incredible service, as defining a “compelling experience,” while Jobs, favoring the right side of his brain, understood how to make the raw technology into artful design and a more consumer friendly application. Further, he envisioned, and accomplished, the final ingredient for a holistic definition of a “compelling experience,” by providing an artfully designed and consumer friendly place for consumers to learn about and purchase Apple products.

Steve Jobs was once quoted: “What incredible benefits can we give the customer?” As pointed out in the same article, he did not say something like, “…let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then figure out how to market it.” He would say, the answer isn’t in having more engineers. All of them come up with brilliant ideas in their specialized areas all the time. It’s figuring out which ones, and how they will benefit and excite the consumer. He said, “We’re going to integrate these things together in ways that no else in this industry can to provide a seamless user experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re the last guys left in this industry that can do it. And that’s what we’re about.”

The Jobsian Effect Is Bigger and More Game-Changing

While Amazon may continue with lightning speed to become the Walmart of e-commerce, it is the Jobs-like convergence of the art and science of retail that is having a more profound, longer, broader and deeper effect across all of retailing and consumer-facing industries. And, again, it’s important to note that I’m not just talking about the example of Jobs converging the art and science of Apple and its stores. I’m talking about the much broader universe of hundreds of new technologies being profoundly impacting the way consumers shop and buy, as well as those being used by retailers to enhance the shopping and buying experience. Some of them weigh in more on the science or technology side, like mobile device apps that scan barcodes to find lower prices. Others contribute more to the “art” or experience enhancing side like smart phone apps developed by Ralph Lauren with which consumers can design outfits they and their friends can view and buy at a Ralph Lauren store, or an open-sell, interactive touch screen Beauty Spot kiosk being tested by Macy’s, for those who want to shop without the help of sales associates.

Literally hundreds of other new technology solutions were on display at the recent NRF Big Show Convention in New York. And, I expect those numbers will increase rapidly well into the future until the landscape across all consumer-facing industries will be totally transformed.

The bigger and more game-changing point here is that, as Jobs said, it’s not about a technical innovation a day, or two or three, it’s about how you use them to benefit the consumer, which is really an art unto itself. It is about how businesses converge the technology/science and the art to elevate the consumer experience.

Furthermore, as exemplified by Apple through the vision of Jobs, and an equally important component of the “art” and ultimate experience, is the shopping environment. And, this part of the “art” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with technology or science per se. For example, the architectural design of the Apple stores, the less-is-more, clean, crisp and cool presentation, the lighting and so forth, are all imperative for providing the experience.

And perhaps the most over-arching “glue” for solidifying the art/science experience is the human touch, the associates, the brand advocates. The Apple art/science convergence could not exist without its incredibly welltrained, eager, energetic, and knowledgeable associates cum “teachers.”

And, the businesses that strategically plan and effectively implement the convergence of the art and science will not only win, in the aggregate they will change the game. They will transform old business models and give new shape to entire industries.

Those who possess neither the understanding nor know-how to converge these to benefit the consumer will disappear. Amazon still has a lot of work to do in tapping into the more experience enhancing, “art” side of the business. Perhaps we’ll witness the beginning of this initiative in the predicted launch of their first brick and mortar “boutique” in Seattle.

The Convergence Starts and Ends With the Consumer

Point number one on the path to successful convergence is that it must be co-created with the consumer. In other words, just converging all kinds of innovative technology tools, applications and cute in-store gadgets with the “art” of an experiential environment will fail if it is not a holistically envisioned creation that directly links to the mental and emotional triggers that compel the consumer to proactively seek the experience. In our book, The New Rules of Retail, we call this making a neurologically addictive connection, a quintessential experience, one that goes beyond just an emotional connection to connecting with the mind.

This sounds like more of the same old “stating the obvious” of the need to be consumer driven. But, too often among traditional retailers and brands, “consumer driven” means getting the product or service “right,” without taking in the “whole” of the consumer’s emotional and perceived desires. The Apple stores stand as premier examples of art and science holistically connecting with consumers’ “minds” and emotions, in an addictively compelling way.

Another example, featured in our Q&A with Disney Retail President Jim Fielding, is the Disney Stores’ renovation. It’s no small irony that Steve Jobs was on the Disney Board, and surely provided some inspiration. Fielding’s holistic vision emanated from Disney’s consumer and generated his mission, in his own words: to create “the best 30 minutes of a child’s day.” He said: “…we wanted to filter everything through that lens. We view the store and experiences from a kid’s point of view.”

And, with a “Jobsian” convergence of art and science, Fielding is implementing his vision, not with randomly placed technologies and gadgets throughout the store, but with an understanding of how the whole experience comes together. And, Disney Stores arrived at the experience by, as Fielding said: “…building a full-scale working model of the new store which we built in a warehouse near our headquarters. It gave us time to work through every aspect of the store design, try new technology, and really get a feel of how our guests would experience the store.”

The results include technologies like an interactive “Magic Mirror,” a store “theatre” to view videos, movie trailers and clips from Disney Channel shows. And, the “art” of the experience created a spiffed up, more pleasant, better lit and laid out shopping experience. Double digit traffic and “dwell time” increases have been realized since the store launch in 2010.

S- & M-Commerce

So much has been written, discussed and lectured about social media(seeking a commercial path) and mobile or m-commerce (still in its infancy), that one’s head spins trying to identify and understand the myriad ways in which both of these “sciences,” so to speak, can converge with the art of retailing.

Retailers and brands are still seeking “social” acceptance, much less figuring out how to commercially engage the various “communities” without being scorned as a “hawking pariah.” But, there is not even a sliver of doubt that if brands and retailers do not learn how to become loving members of these social groups, it will be one big step toward oblivion. Conversely, the upside for those who do converge social media with their “art,” (products and services), is that it will generate tremendous growth. This is because the most powerful medium for influencing purchasing decisions is word of mouth.

Finally, on social media, while its influence on purchasing behavior is beyond dispute, Facebook’s attempts at expanding into an e-commerce marketplace (“F-commerce” as it’s been called), have so far failed. Its first foray with 1-800-flowers.com in 2009 was followed by several other retailers, including Gap, JC Penney and Nordstrom’s, all of which pulled out. About F-commerce, which saw itself as another Amazon-type retailing channel, Forrester Research Sucharita Mulpuru, said, “….it was like trying to sell stuff to people while they’re hanging out with their friends at the bar.”

M-commerce is all the rage right now. The bombardment of communications on this topic is overwhelming. Most insiders believe it’s still in its early stages, and that the eventual scope of its applications is mindbending. Its convergence with the art of retailing enhances the shopping experience in-store or wherever the consumer happens to be. If implemented correctly, the ability for businesses to gather profiles and detailed information about each of their loyal customers can be used to provide individualized products and services, which is a huge enhancer to the “art” of the shopping experience, both in the store and online.

The Robin Report - The Jobsian EraThe fact that a loyal North Face customer walking within a two mile radius of one of the brand’s stores can have his mobile device text him a message that a new back-pack just arrived with his name written all over it is an example of not only “taking the brand to them,” but more importantly, compelling them into the store.

Then when in the store the art/science of the brand can be holistically experienced. The customer opens his app, and The North Face knows he’s in store, and even where, (using wi-fi based location services). Since they already know product preferences and purchasing history, they can suggest other items that complement the new backpack offer that compelled the customer into the store. And, of course, the customer experiences the art side of the store environment: streaming outdoor performance videos, demonstrations, music, and professional, well-trained associates.

Sephora has another example of mcommerce connecting with a store experience. A smartphone app is integrated with a tablet app that plays how-to videos teaching how to apply a mix of their products.

So, while the earlier use of mobile devices was primarily to link on e-commerce sites for browsing and information, followed by in-store price comparisons called “showrooming,” the more sophisticated retailers and brands are directly connecting with mobile users and attracting them into the store using personalized product and service offerings and other incentives.

A Few Gadgets

In response to the necessity for a holistic convergence of art and science emanating from consumer desires and expectations, there are hundreds of new technological gadgets that can enhance the shopping experience, and/or communicate to consumers through different media.

I mentioned Macy’s Beauty Spot kiosk and Ralph Lauren’s smartphone app. Lauren has also employed touch-manipulated storefront windows for information. They developed a “4D” event in London and New York which beamed holographic images onto buildings depicting polo players becoming perfume bottles, followed by the release of the fragrance itself into the attending crowd.

HSN worked with Intel to create a 13 by 8 foot interactive touch screen to be tested in airports and hotels. It can eventually be used for introducing new products, gaming, for special events such as cooking classes by Wolfgang Puck and, of course, for HSN to capture data for e-mails.

Verifone Global Bay Mobile Technologies has a mobile retail software module that turns an iPad into an “in-store kiosk” of sorts. Guess? was able to increase transactions using it for their “look books” and placing it in dressing rooms, and further employed it for associates’ training. Further uses: rotating images; videos and commercials; music; loyalty program and credit card enrollment; usage tracking; promotions and coupons, and more.

Cisco has several interactive technologies, two of which are used to enhance the shopping experience. First is its digital signing for: marketing; entertainment and informational content; communications and training; advertising; and many other applications. Second is the StyleMe technology that provides a virtual fashion mirror for trying on products. Shoppers can use gesture-based navigation to choose from the retailer’s complete inventory, build outfits, and try on their selections virtually. They can also capture images to share over social media and email, receive recommendations, and purchase products, with or without assistance.

Or, from Intel, how about a vending machine that can scan your face and learn your age and gender, or scan license plates and offer up promotions on tires and even coffee? Or, there are any number of technologies that can replace people: cashiers; security guards; buyers; etc. Gift wrapping can now be replaced by Gift Wrap Solutions’ “The Big Wrapper” wrapping machine. And, this is not even the half of it. And, there are hundreds more of what could be called “gadgets,” some quite humorous, but certainly in over-abundance to the point where I have suggested we may be in the middle of another tech bubble.

This Is a New Era

In closing, all of the new technologies —- the science — and even some of the cool “gadgets,” should not be viewed as random, one-off kind of store enhancers. They should be understood as components of a strategically holistic new business model, and an incredible new era in retailing, one in which the winners will converge science and art to create an experience so powerful, that consumers are compelled to make it a must-go-to destination, both offline and on.

It is yours to create.

Robin Lewis About Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.