Retail as Endangered or Evolving Species?

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\"\"As we consider the ever-quickening pace of retail brand decline and retailer retrenchment, I am reminded of the professional experiences that have molded my world view. Early in my career, I was the tourism representative of the Galapagos Islands, 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific and home to all the varieties of animal, plant, fish and bird life that were catalysts to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Put simply, a radical range of life existed on all the islands, but each evolved differently on each island. No two atolls produced the same type of finch, so there were 47 varietals of the same species for him (and us) to study.

Sticking with Darwin’s theory, we are witness to the real-time evolution of the retail industry, our 47 different varieties of the retail finch. Some brands adapt. Some retailers innovate. Some malls re-engineer. Others, not so much. Think of them as penguins living happily on the equator (think about that for a moment). These tiny creatures, barely a foot tall, are thriving thanks to the cold Humboldt Current coming up from Antarctica, coupled with an ability—and willingness—to evolve into a smaller body mass over time. Many hundreds of years, at least. Except, of course, brands and retailers don’t have that long to figure it out. They need to find their nutritionally laden, cultural currents in the deep, shark-infested waters in which they find themselves paddling right now.

Apple’s Focus: Hearts that Want to Help

Let’s face it. There are few navigational charts for this roiling ocean of change, replete with storm clouds on the horizon. But there are a few polestars: Apple, for example; Starbucks as another, Oreos is yet a third! Perhaps nobody understood the “I don’t know how we got here, but I’m going to survive” phenomenon as well or described it with more clarity than Steve Jobs, circa 1995. Remember he had been booted from Apple, when the board wanted Pepsi’s John Sculley to run the thing in a business-like, marketing-driven, professional way. In Jobs’ words:

The companies forget what it means to make great products. The product sensibility and the product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product versus a bad product. They have no conception of the craftsmanship that’s required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. And they really have no feeling in their hearts usually about wanting to really help the customers.

His idea is worth considering as we look at J.Crew, for example. An article in The New Yorker makes the case explicitly. Two billion dollars in debt, staring at bankruptcy, laying off 150 people, closing the bridal business, leaving 100 more positions unfilled. The preppy narrative cum cult world of Mickey Drexler slouching towards a nasty denouement for one of the most heralded retail brands of the early 2000s. Why?

Well, I posit it’s because the company got big and stayed big, based on an assumption that its vision of what the consumer should want, should aspire to be would be eternally sound. They created a virtual Crew World that worked … until it didn’t. Once the culture shifted away from that multi-tasking coolness, the company was stranded in a materialistic cul de sac with no exit. J.Crew became more fully enchanted by its own parallel universe, a virtual reality populated by “on-brand” looking, life-styled denizens of an imaginary “have it all” affluence that was prescriptive and therefore restrictive in its fashion mandate. “To be this person you must look this way,” it seems to say. “Become the you we imagine you should want to be by wearing us.” The customer evolved out of Crew World, but J.Crew could not. It became mired in its own brand, disconnected from the “feeling in their hearts about wanting to really help the customers.” J.Crew becomes victim of Natural Selection on
a fast-track timeline.

I’m My Own Brand, So Screw Yours

Consumers in a consumer society are a paradoxical lot. They know your brand, but increasingly they are their own brands, the Brand Manager of Me, in charge of the endless curation of their Me brand image via Instagram feeds, Facebook, Pinterest, SnapChat, and Twitter. When big brands try to co-opt those individual narratives, they corrupt them, irritating the audience with interpretations of presumed aspirations. They may get it right for a bit, but when the cultural set point of ambition shifts, the brand look and feel moves quickly to obsolesce and thus to slo-mo extinction.

We are not living in the mass-produced ambition of a J.Crew world now. We live in a smaller, warmer, more personally curated world. The mechanisms through which Big Brands help us ratify ourselves through their very bigness are broken, ineffective. Untuckit. Bonobos. My discoveries for me. Not yours for your imagined me.

We hear it consistently in our work, particularly as we listen to shoppers who share their most powerful shopping experiences. A decade ago it was about the retail brand, as in “I was at Macy’s with my mother,” or about a specific mall they visited searching for a specific and important item. More recently, it’s been so universally about an internet search for a hard-to-find item that we’ve had to probe specifically to get actual out-of-home experiences. Each of those is resolutely searching for the small, little known, boutique, “I can tell my friends about the experience” journey. As often as not, their search is for a perfect cheese to go with a wine. Not shoes to go with a dress. They want the advice that comes from a passionate sales person, not the standardized “here’s how to wear this and what to wear this with and when to wear it” that comes with in-store and catalog how-to messaging, working hard to serve as the sales help they need at that moment of need.

The Zeitgeist of Now

We live in a moment of sweeping choice, empowered by the internet, of course, but propelled by a certain whiff of individualism, feigned or real, in the Zeitgeist of now. Such a proliferation of options as we are met with when we Google “chinos women,” for example, obviates the need for a brand: Do we care if the pants come from J.Crew, or Lands’ End or Urban Outfitters or Gap or H&M or L.L. Bean, or Uniqlo, or Banana Republic? It is exhausting to consider, especially when suddenly we see another option: makeyourownjeans.com. We can design the perfect pair. Our perfect pair. On brand for our brand.

If J.Crew were really to “have feeling in their hearts about wanting to really help customers,” that delicious Jobsian criterion, they would never have shut Bridal. Why? Because it’s the perfect and yes, smaller, brand look, price and name to help a very specific customer in need of very specific help: Teen girls and their mothers searching for a prom dress. Really? Yes. The bridal name gave it a grown-up cachet and the shopping experience is an absolute fantasy run-through, foreshadowing in a thrilling way the wedding dress moment to come. But presumably because the division didn’t make its numbers or served as a distraction, whoosh! There it goes, abandoning its customers in desperate need for something evocatively specific through which to enter the brand portal. Why? To allow the company to focus on the failing general, undifferentiated, price-sensitive and commoditized business they know it to be.

If I worked at J.Crew, I’d be putting together an employee stock option plan and begging the board to sell Bridal to us. Writ small, this is a big idea. This is how you think like a penguin on the equator. Stranded on the iceberg of Big J.Crew as it floats irrepressibly towards the melting sun of the Equatorial Pacific, such a specific offering is doomed. Freed up and bobbing in the current, it can respond, adapt and frolic with its teen audience.

Some consumer brands break out of the prison of their own construction, of course. Starbucks gets it consistently right—and episodically wrong every so often—but the arch of the brand is always bending toward new products and services to meet customers at their moments of need throughout the day and night.

Look at Oreos. If they had defined the brand only as a “cream-filled chocolate wafer sandwich cookie,” they’d be in big trouble now. Or gone. But instead, they brand the emotional content: The fun and excitement in the brand’s DNA reaching all the way back to childhood. Oreos Fireworks are coming in time for the 4th of July.

Gorgeous as the Galapagos Islands are, they provide a cautionary tale for all of us competing, surviving, adapting and seeking to thrive in the larger world, while hoping to avoid becoming flightless cormorants, lovelorn giant turtles and blue-footed boobies: Innovate or die. Evolve or become extinct. Anticipate the future, don’t try to catch up to it. Or at its most basic, know your customers, listen to them, and serve them with a heart that wants to help.

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