Retail Could Become the Hunger Games

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\"RR_WillThe world, just at this moment, is riveted by the spectacle of a precariously balanced high wire act in something approximating Hunger Games cum Circus Maximus. We are all watching. We cannot look away.  Each day comes new news and revelations. Each day comes new frightening random acts of death and destruction: Beirut, Paris, Mali — all in one week. Brussels on lockdown.

There will come a time soon when we begin to pick up the vestiges of our lives and come to grips with its transformation into our new normal. For retailers, brands, designers of retail environments and sales training professionals, the stakes could not be higher.

Done right, there will be an unprecedented upgrade in the security precautions that actually provide genuine safety, real protections. Done right, there will be an evolution of the cues and codes that suggest safety in public spaces. Done right, there will be a thrilling professionalization of the sales staff. Taken all together in this ideal world: powerful ratification of the shopper’s decision to venture out into the retail world.

Done incoherently without a genuine vision: This is the tipping point. We move to all online shopping  — all the time.

So how does the industry honestly “do it right” at this precarious moment?  Think of the potential shopper’s current precarious moment. She thinks about venturing into the mall or Main Street to cross the threshold of a major department store or specialty retailer. What does it mean to her to confront private security personnel (armed?) at the entrance? Does it mean safety? Perhaps. Or is it frightening?  Perhaps. Would she take her children with her? Decide to meet a friend there? Would she rather go through an airport-style metal detector? Would it give her the confidence to search for that perfect Christmas gift?  Or does it remind her of the endless delays and irritation of airline travel?  Or of Paris.

That’s the needle we have to thread.

The only way to move forward it is to honestly (and quickly) figure out the state-of-the art security we can discover, invent and/or borrow. By “we,” I mean retailers and brands working together. This is less about theft reduction technology and more about protection and security technologies that work synergistically between store and product. We need to double down and invest beyond the armed mall cop. There are industries which have already done this. Ones willing to share insights, forensics and state-of-the art operations.

I hope these calls are already happening. What’s the area code for Israel?

Once the heavy lifting of authentic security is underway, there are the physical manifestations and psychological implications to be considered. Do headless, armless, ideology-agnostic mannequins really support the post-Paris shopping experience?  What are the lighting, display, and music signals (amid a thousand other environmental cues) that lower the shoulders or raise the hackles of shoppers? There are seasoned, serious professionals who worry about these countless security and cultural details constantly. I hope that retailers are already asking them for help — to get it right, and fast.

And then there’s the sales staff. This could be the moment. Imagine what it means to have a real person (that is, a really knowledgeable person) really caring about whether or not the shopper finds the exact right gift, sweater, shoes, wallpaper, candle, makeup foundation, perfume, or TV stand. Imagine that person as trained and ready to monitor the moment.  The salesperson is aware of strange behaviors, enabled with an emergency technology that calls for help without obviously calling for help. Cynically speaking, imagine that we’re no longer dealing with a nameless coterie of teens on their first job (and eager for their next), trained only to make sure you know they’re watching you to make sure you’re not a shoplifter.

Simply said: The balance is shifting. It’s no longer the time to suspect the shopper. It’s time to make sure the shopper trusts the store.

Right now, the shoppers’ point of entry into stores is one of fragility. It’s a sense of emotional tenderness and vulnerability, cut with a desire to proceed “as if” with a top note of a will to be brave and impervious. Look at Parisians today. They want to go out to bistros with friends like they did two weeks ago, and they want to continue their world-renown intellectual and lifestyle freedoms that are synonymous with Paris. But they are drawn inextricably to light candles and bring flowers to spontaneous memorials. And they are willing, perhaps eager, to go on war footing and suspend personal privacy protections.

Shopping has always been complicated, but now it’s complex in new and uncharted ways. Dining in bistros may be the archetypal vision of Paris in the global consciousness; shopping in malls may well be the American image. Through the corrupted logic of jihadists, the mall could be the place to strike.

The positive role of retail here in the U.S. is crucial from a sociological perspective. As retail leaders, we have a powerful part to play in helping people stay engaged with us and with each other. Retail is enmeshed in the fabric of a functional society.

But getting security right, along with the appropriate tone, message and cues, is also mission critical for our businesses. Put yourself in the psyche of that shopper, thinking about whether or not she is ready to confront the real and imagined perils of the mall. Or consider her decision to shop the day after tomorrow from Amazon Prime without ever having to leave home.  Shopping can be viewed as frivolous.  Having the freedom to shop is an unalienable right.



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