Returning to Physical Retail: A Second Chance at Connecting with Shoppers
In our June blog “Retail Personalities: How 5 Brands Excel at Expressing Theirs,” we wrote about the passionate and sometimes cult-like love that consumers have for some of their favorite retailers and brands and how these physical retail businesses have cultivated their relationships with their shoppers by establishing and consistently demonstrating their distinct personalities, most particularly in-store.
All of the brands we showcased in that blog piece, like Ace Hardware, Stew Leonard’s and Anthropologie, have made a place for themselves in the retail world by working hard at perfecting their individualized personalities to the point that even those who do not shop them know what they’re all about.
But as shoppers return to brick-and-mortar stores, are retailers and brands paying enough attention to their shoppers and their new, somewhat recalibrated mindset? And what I mean by recalibrated is their re-prioritized focus on where they choose to shop and with whom. Are retailers and brands missing an opportunity to seize upon a chance to reintroduce themselves to shoppers in a different way during a time that could represent measurable and unprecedented growth? Yes, I said growth.
Hard to believe that a mere two or three years ago, many were opining that the retail apocalypse was upon us and that e-commerce would soon diminish, if not totally obliterate the need for physical retail. Who would’ve thought that a global pandemic would suddenly and urgently demonstrate that humans are not suited to live solely in a digital world and not only need, but greatly desire physical interaction with their environment?
While many ran toward the necessity of digital purchasing food, clothing and other staples, I think we all knew that this was going to be temporary. That even in the pre-pandemic world, a one-choice approach could never be sustained. Online and physical retail would have to eventually work in unison—symbiotically, one feeding the other in a ying-yang type of relationship. And now here we are, coming out of a monstrously difficult period with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement towards a rebirth. No more enthusiastically shared than in a recent webinar hosted by RetailWire – a terrific discussion on rethinking the physical store.
Fabletics Senior Vice President, Head of Retail Ron Harris and The Journey’s Group Director of Retail Data Analytics, William Bennette, spoke at length about the exciting era of retail that we are now entering, both agreeing that brick-and-mortar retail has reemerged as the cornerstone of retail.
So instead of it being an era of fear and trepidation, it’s actually become a time of great hope, excitement, renewal and growth for many. And as such, it represents endless possibilities for businesses to rethink their relationships with their consumers—starting anew.
It’s seldom that businesses get the opportunity of a second chance. However, it may appear that we’ve been handed just that. The real question is, will many take the cue?
Which brings me back to what we have already written about and that is, what is it that sets your brand and your store apart from the rest? Why would shoppers want to shop with you? What is it that will make them come back for more, again and again? And does your brand have a personality? How do you demonstrate that?
In our last blog we talked about some big-box, well-known retailers both in the hard goods and grocer sectors; how they worked their personalities and honed extraordinary relationships with their shoppers. But what about those smaller independent brands? Those who have managed to grow their businesses by doing things differently, uniquely, establishing their own distinct and relatable personalities whichcoincide with post-pandemic consumer desires for authenticity, community and values. During the pandemic, many local communities were hard hit by store closures while big-box operators like Walmart and Target remained not only open but thriving. The shopper may have experienced this personally or known others who were directly impacted and a sense of compassion for the “little guy,” or independent operator, has changed many a shopper’s attitude about smaller, local, community-connected businesses.
Many consumers were introduced to new, lesser-known and independent brands during 2020 and developed new tastes, straying away from the corporate legacy brands. Desiring shared values between themselves and a brand and not feeling as if they are simply cattle being driven down the aisles. When talking about the experience in store, NCR in a recent article said it best: “Experiential retail is a concept that refocuses time spent in-store toward excitement rather than pushy salesmanship. It’s about providing engaging experiences that showcase your brand and allows your customers to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and discover products organically removing the feeling of being ‘sold’ to.”
Moving away from the “this is what you need to buy” corporate, cookie-cutter, impersonal message to one that is more humanized and likable conveys, “we get you,” “we understand you,” “…you’re home.” And after a year of constant digital interaction, the shopper is hungry for this friendly arm around their shoulders.
So what is it that some smaller retailers and brands are doing to connect with their audiences that should be paid attention to?
Here are three brands that appear to understand their customers, their communities and who have found a personality that resonates with them.
Located near Broadway in lower Manhattan, Fishs Eddy has been in business there since 1986. Offering a broad assortment of odd, whimsical and off-beat hard goods like plates, glassware, and the occasional vintage statuary, meandering through their one-of-a kind store will have you discovering things you never thought you needed but now cannot leave without purchasing.
Being in this store, you definitely don’t feel as if you’re in the middle of downtown Manhattan, but rather an old-time haberdashery somewhere in a rural setting. Fishs Eddy is just one big scavenger hunt that will leave you literally laughing out loud over some of the bawdy and off-color signage they prominently display (check out their website to see what I mean: https://fishseddy.com). Using handmade signage is their trademark. Yes, lots of chalk signs—definitely not the ones you’re used to seeing, but they do an effective job at catching your interest and pointing out the humor in something as mundane as a vintage wooden glove form.
The personality here is eccentricity. Like going through your crazy Aunt Ella’s attic and finding hotel signature plates she stole while on vacation in Maine in the 1950s. The thing is, they’ve recognized that people want to find unique, almost one-of-a-kind gifts that don’t look like they’ve been manufactured somewhere offshore. And they’ve curated these items and given them a voice (and a really funny one) on their shelves. Where one inspection leads to the next shelf, leads to the next shelf. Well, you get it. Like going through a funny greeting card rack. If they’re hilarious, you begin to rifle through them all.
Fishs Eddy understands their shopper, and it’s a working formula as businesses come and go quickly in this competitive city. So, this 35-year-old has managed to cement their personality delivering the unexpected over and over again and it seems that many love it!
This local store, located in Lambertville, New Jersey, and is a staff favorite. It’s a small mom-and-pop home décor business that evokes discovery and exploration in every nook and cranny, and it does this through exceptional visual merchandising.
The merchandise is meticulously staged and tells a narrative around every corner. The store puts combinations of room, floor and wall décor together that one would never think of pairing, and they make it work seamlessly to depict a story and a mood.
Recognizing its customer is seeking unique, creative ideas and inspiration (that won’t look like it came out of an HGTV episode), it provides out-of-the-box concepts and approaches on home décor that engage not only large pieces of furniture and lighting but also all the accessories and trims like tabletop and wall décor. Every detail is thought of down to the sensory experience in the store. Candles are lit and placed throughout the interior to give you a sense of comfort and hominess, making you want to linger, like a really good dinner party at a friend’s home.
Keeping the small things large… The price tags are all individually labeled and handwritten from rings of a trees. Once again adding to the personal touch and hominess of the overall experience of the store.
My teammate says that every time he visits this store, he’s there for over an hour and always leaves having made a purchase. It’s the personal touches as well as the friendliness of the owners that help sustain and support such a local business. In this case this store becomes not just a place to shop, but its personality is one of an old, good friend who really has great ideas and suggestions to share. And every time you return, you learn something new and are enriched by the visit even further.
The fascination here is that this company has taken a business category (convenience stores) that pretty much had zero personality (sorry, 7-Eleven) and given it one. And not only a personality but one that’s become something like a neighborhood friend.
Initially starting out as an online retailer back in 2013, Foxtrot really came into their own during 2020 when stores were closing, but the need to keep local communities supplied with fast eats had them going back to their roots (online ordering).
It’s not so much their business model, which offers 30-minute delivery on approximately 2,000 products including snacks, beverages and fresh meals, but the fact that they decided to treat the convenience store experience in a different, more aesthetically pleasing way. Really…when was the last time you lounged around a convenience store on a leather couch?
Carla Dunham, CMO of Foxtrot, said back in 2020 said “The in-store experience is your first point of contact. You’re able to see the store and the range of merchandise we carry. But the true value begins to unlock when you’re shopping with us online and you’re looking for a great bottle of wine to be delivered as well as your sundry needs going into the weekend.” Who would think that a corner convenience store could also serve as your neighborhood concierge? It makes you look at such a category and say “yes, anything is possible!” You just need to see it with different eyes. In this case they’re addressing local needs, with local products, providing a service and eventually feeding to an in-store experience. BTW—they had me at the bottle of wine. But aside from this, here is an example of treating what has been historically a somewhat unremarkable, maybe even tacky experience, and turning it in to a multichannel-driven opportunity. The personality in this case is concierge turned accommodating host (and a very suave and cool friend).
So what are the takeaways here? Let’s do a little rundown by insight.
Your shopper has changed. Though that change might be slight, their axis has definitely shifted and the relationships that they established with new online resources and brands during their time away has and will continue to influence their behaviors. Their choices. And ultimately their buying habits.
Many have let go the absolute need to be loyal to the big brands, instead finding other independent brands that offer the same, if not better, quality. Quality of course being defined by the purchaser—not because a brand is touting it.
- Don’t deny that something has shifted during the year’s hiatus. Embrace it. Inspect it. Erase the long-held paradigms that you have been operating by for years and look at the human experience behind the in-store experience. And I’m not talking about making everything aesthetically “pretty.” I am talking about focusing on your shopper’s journey in store. What makes them dwell, which has returned as a big focus now that many will need to give the shopper a good reason to dwell, is in direct conflict with what their experience was during 2020. As the “shop-and-dash” mentality and related fears begin to dissipate, retailers need to entice, motivate, romance and influence the shopper to explore, investigate and interact with the physical store. And in these encounters, give them reason and motivation to stay a while.
- Don’t treat the in-store experience as unconnected pockets of your dwell-inducing efforts. The multi-personality approach is confusing to the shopper. Inconsistencies in how you demonstrate your brand (corporate-like in one department then warm and friendly in another) as it tends to cause a disconnect from the consumer and they can’t figure you out. See your store as a total holistic entity. Yes, you can have a funny and serious side as any personality will, but tie that into the whole persona—and then follow through on even the smallest of details (like the wooden price tag in the Zinc store).
The day of being all things to all people in retail has changed. Shoppers buying behaviors find them seeking out both small and large outlets to fulfill their needs and desires. Shoppers may be perfectly fine with going to a larger grocer to get their produce, but it doesn’t mean they’ll stop seeking out farmers markets when they desire a broader range of fresh vegetables or baked goods when they can. Brands shouldn’t be afraid of this. Shoppers will always have choices. But trying to be everything to all will dilute the essence of any brand’s personality and fragment the experience in store.
Shoppers didn’t have a lot of options in 2020 and they were regulated to online, one-dimensional exchanges. Now that they are back to having choices, they’re going to exercise that right. Yes, they can decide whether or not to choose you…but isn’t that really up to you to convince them to?
- Strive to be the “choice” for your shopper by creating a personality in the shopping experience that they crave to interact with—not just have to by need.
- Don’t try to be everything to everyone, but instead hone in on your target audience— what makes them happy, what makes them laugh. What defines them. While I know that might somewhat superficial, it’s a formula that has worked for many brands and retailers like Stew Leonard’s and Anthropologie. These entities recognized and focused on who their shoppers were and built their in-store experience around that profile— giving their audience what they wanted—and in some cases it has almost nothing to do with the merchandise or product they sell.
- Get your store buyers, merchandisers and managerial and corporate staff out on the sales floor. No sales register or sales report is going to tell you about your shopper. How they’re moving through your shop. What they’re looking at. What they’re touching. Human interaction requires human observation because there are so many small things happening in your store, things that computers cannot tell you. Small things that add up to big things in the understanding of who your shopper is and what “does it for them.”
- Your salespeople are your greatest resource for understanding your shopper. Treat them like the valued resources and heroes they are. Many have helped to sustain your businesses during the pandemic and had to pivot quickly in order to do that. They heard their customers. They understand intimately the challenges and the obstacles your shoppers have had to navigate through. Listen to them and you’ll gain an even deeper insight into your customer’s psyche. Especially during this most important transition back to physical retail.
Consumers have become more attuned to sensing corporate speak. They’re seeking authenticity. They want brands and those they’ve chosen to shop with to demonstrate a sense of community and ethical stewardship. They don’t want to be “barked at” with corporate generated sales pitches. They don’t want to be sold to and manipulated. They do want however, to be helped, informed, inspired, awed, entertained and satisfied and made to feel that their values and yours are simpatico.
- Create experiences at store level that are unexpected. Disrupt your business model a little and bring your tone down to the community level. What’s right for the shopper in Denver may not be right for the one in St. Paul. Recognize this and acknowledge your local shopper rather than force corporate campaigns. Because it’s your local shopper that will tell others about you—and passionately—if they feel you understand (and hear) them.
- Where and when you can, bring your community in store. Whether that’s showcasing locally made or resourced products, artists or musicians, or partnering with small businesses to give them a boost up. Don’t just put your mission statement on a wall. If you are a supporter of local community, demonstrate that in store and make it part of your ongoing personality.
Shoppers enjoy shopping experiences that are fun and interactive. Again, leaning away from telling your customers what to buy, show them why and do it in a fun, entertaining way. Shoppers have had a challenging past year and they miss the in-store experience—and, frankly, just laughing again. Infusing humor into your displays and signage is the medicine so needed now. And when that humor is genuine it leaves the shopper wanting to come back, even if it’s just to laugh again. Generally, that’s not a typical motivator for most retail visits, but it’s what keeps many Trader Joe’s customers coming back again and again.
- Look at all areas of your store for the opportunity to add a little levity. Humor doesn’t need to be just in the selling, it can be in the checkout line, in the fitting rooms. If you have a funny tag line, why not incorporate that into simple things like wayfinding signage, floor decals, merchandise tagging? When it’s unexpected, it’s memorable. And small, subtle approaches tend to stick in the consumer’s mind.
- Add humor or entertainment to signage not only in store but outside, like in the parking lot or in decompression zones. On the way in, the shopper gets a chuckle (setting a good tone for the visit). On the way out, maybe it’s an offer to scan a QR code for more branded “funnies” for the day or an offer to enter a contest on a brainteaser (funny of course) with an answer provided on the next visit in. Be creative, think fun. It’s not always about shopping. Sometimes it’s just about going someplace that simply makes you feel happy—and distracts you from the not-so-funny parts of life.
Having a personality in retail has never been more important than it is now because shoppers are looking for and desiring more humanness in their interactions with brands and retailers. People are anxious to get back into physical retail—touch, smell, interact with. Something they were denied for over a year, and it’s time reintroduce them to you; perhaps in a different, unexpected way. Second chances don’t come along too often, and today might represent the beginning of a beautiful friendship with your customer. A new and improved one that has your shopper choosing you over others again and again.
The in-store environment has never been more missed and more sought out by shoppers now hungry for the physical and emotional connections that can only be truly realized in brick-and-mortar. For over 60 years Medallion has demonstrated its value to many brands big and small, helping drive customer engagement through unique, innovative and storytelling in-store signage and display.
To learn about what we might do for you, check us out at medallionretail.com or give Medallion Retail’s Chris Gordon a call at: @ 646.677.5618.