Where is Retail Headed?

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\"rr-retailheaded-newlin\"Walmart is buying Jet.com.

“Forbes” tells us that shopping malls are being killed by online shopping and Nordstrom’s CFO says it’s only going to get worse.

Yet, something called “global shopping destinations” is thriving. Note the refusal to use the term “mall.” One example, South Coast Plaza, attracts 22 million shoppers annually, with net sales of $2 billion according to a recent report in Racked.com. Point 2: American Express’s promotion of Small Business Saturday is fast making this $14 billion a day more important because it’s far more profitable than Black Friday for savvy retailers.

So what gives? Do we want to shop in the real world, or not?

The answer can be found in an old-fashioned notion: community. David Brooks has been writing a great deal about this in The New York Times. While he applies the thinking to the world of politics and religion, the ideas that Brooks seems to dwell on this year may offer us a key to the future of retail. He draws a distinction between identity and community, pointing out that identity is all about “who am I?” while community is all about “to what am I willing to invest my time, effort and money?”

Maybe It’s Not All About Me, After All

If we bring this concept into the retail world, we can imagine that apparel brands are expressions of identity. Imagine, for example that you want to purchase a Hampton Yellow Ralph Lauren polo shirt. You want that logo and that look. Price and convenience matter and whoosh! There you are on Amazon.com. You don’t really need to touch the item or talk to a salesperson about it, or wait in line at the dressing room. A few clicks and a wait of two days. You get what you what. The easier, the cheaper, the better. End of story.

However, some successful retail outliers tempt us to leave our internet -enabled cocoons, to venture to our cars and their parking lots. What have they figured out that Macy’s, Walmart, Nordstrom’s and other marquee retailers have not? They have found a way to forge community, to create places where we want to explore, hubs to which we want to belong. This goes beyond being hobbled by our location. We are not lured into these stores as part of a nostalgia play, after a walk down a quaint Main Street.

No, these intrepid A, A+ and A++ venues are creating a “shopping destination,” one that is ripe with excellent restaurants, clean and exciting movie theatres and chock-a-block with confident retailers staffed with professionals who encourage my odyssey of discovery. I enter to embark on an enchanted experience that leaves me feeling informed, indeed educated, and joyously lucky to have found what I was looking for, even when I didn’t quite know what I was looking for. It isn’t easy to deliver this experience, but hey, there is serious money to be made. Why is that? Because the experience transcends price. We’re no longer in the world of commoditized branded retail with its scripted sales pitches, bored staff and cluttered floors.

Belonging to Something Bigger Than Myself

These magnetic destinations are monetizing the thrill that comes from community. Yes, your garden-variety local communities. The kinds that exist in the old-fashioned world of physical reality. So much of our lives are led virtually, this theory goes,  that when we can pull the ripcord and escape our ‘kittens in doorways” YouTube specificity, and our “other people who bought X also liked Y” algorithm-infused downtime, there is a genuine frisson that comes from the physical act of walking through a well-designed space to wander amidst well-curated wares, supported by professional sales staff that knows what they are talking about and wants to share their knowledge.

Now, we’re not talking about the scripted, “Let me tell you about our entrees this evening” moments. We’re not talking about sales staff eager to get us to apply for a retailer credit card and 20 percent off today. We’re not talking about “mass produced” care and concern.

Online retail does that better than human beings can ever do. Let’s face it. Computer coders can monitor human behavior and design systems to meet us where our reticence to engage with one more ‘”brand membership” is overwhelmed by an instant of greed. Let it go.

What we’re talking about is what we’ve probably experienced most often in a good wine shop, when the fellow behind the counter is actually obsessed by the varietals and produc-ers. He’s the guy who cares about what you’re having for dinner and thinks there’s a beautiful marriage to be made. Remember that guy? He didn’t try to sell you an over-priced bottle, but rather gave you three choices at various price points with the knowledge that seemed informed by actual experience. He wanted you to have a great meal, a great experience. He wanted you to thrill your host, or celebrate your friend’s promotion. When was the last time you experienced that in any other setting? At a bike shop? At an art gallery? It happens in places where the people selling the goods love the goods.

Why is that? My hypothesis is that we have de-professionalized the sales force. People who go into wine sales actually love wine. You know it. They know it. Can the same be said about the last pair of shoes you bought? Or that winter coat? Even the fellow who sold you your most recent watch seemed to be trying to get you into a different and more expensive band, didn’t he? The woman at the fragrance counter was shoe-horning you into a gift-with-purchase deal, wasn’t she? A beach tote you didn’t want, right? She was seeing you as an integer, there to help her fill out a spreadsheet, not someone who would buy now and come back in a month or two. She probably won’t be there in a month or two, will she?

But, oh, that fellow in your local wine shop, the cheese monger at your local gourmet store, the baker at the boulangerie who breaks off a sample to share, proud of his craft. Where else would you ever go? When that kind of emotional belonging is ignited, it forges something so ephemeral and so valuable as to be termed “community.” There’s a reciprocal ownership that takes place: We give the shopkeeper our money and she gives us something far beyond mere goods and services. We gain belonging: community. This becomes “my” shopping experience. And that, as MasterCard used to say, is priceless.



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