Reviving the Retail Giants

Here is the basic fact: Once you’ve stumbled into the sportswear forest at a Macy’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales or Lord & Taylor you could pretty much forget if you’re in the store with the Big Red Star or a Big Red Dot. Each venue relies heavily upon sales, multi-colored tagging systems for additional savings and each, on occasion, will provide you the eerie, guilty feeling of walking into an unattended dressing room. Furthermore, such heavy discounting and price wars leaves little differentiation between these premium giants and discount retailers like Target.

The cuts in service across all department stores are noticeable and understandable given the last two economic years. It seemed there could be nothing better done than to continually slash service and wage war via discounts. But now that little remains to be cut, it’s time for new thinking.

The Recession is over. We need to take this attitude and start building forward and upward. It’s time to think beyond the price battles and restore or re-imagine the experience of department store shopping. As has been proven before, the brands that make forward movements now, while all others are scaling back, will have a head start when the rest start pulling themselves back up. The time is now.

Reports have shown department stores to be failing and most attribute this to retail market share being gobbled up by the nefarious, and overhead-efficient, Internet. And with free shipping both ways, fast and easy browsing, plus the added assistance of search engines for price comparison- it’s no wonder. But I do wonder. For a category that was built on all types of services to accommodate and delight you in your shopping experience, with valet car services, seating areas and on-site alterations- the fact that department stores won’t even give you your $5.95 gift wrapping these days really drives in the last nail.

So the question has to be posed- are these giant, brick and mortar retail spaces worth saving? And if so, is there any contending with the almighty Internet?

Yes. Once upon a time the department store represented an outing. The experience of shopping, trying things on or out, together, is an important part of our socialization as humans and as families- even if the experience sometimes results in quarreling. As an alternative to outdoor recreation, shopping in department stores was for a very long time an act of leisure, not necessity, and provided people an excuse to get out of the house.

Shopping trips, particularly in the United States have come to represent a large chunk of family time- and potentially bonding time: Shopping for holiday dresses, a graduation suit, shorts for the track team, tights for ballet. Department stores are houses for the literal clothing on our backs. We do need them. However, if they all look and feel the same, how can any hope to compete? If they are all about discount and none for the experience why shouldn’t we shirk them for Amazon.com?

The opportunity to reestablish the real-time, face-to-face retail industry is right now. But it will rely heavily upon abandoning a constant competitive angle and a return to real difference.

A few quick thoughts, and no, it’s not going to be easy (or cheap):

1.) Offer A Lot But Specialize in One Thing.

Department stores give you the works. They are conceived as venues that offer you everything you may need for every area of your home, but specialization will help draw a core customer base. When Sears adopted a ‘Softer Side’ it alienated the men who depended on the hardware department.

Offer the gamut of essentials, but find the one area that consumers can come to rely on, remember and return to.

2.) Give People Something To Do. Shopping Should Be Fun.

There is a reason why Macy’s in Herald Square is enormous. It was meant and is still utilized as a full-day excursion. The store has several cafés (Starbucks) and fine eateries (BK) and is reflective of the Macy’s and Hudsons of the 1960s, or the current chain Dillard’s.

If any of today’s large department stores were to create a more immersive experience—Runway Fashion shows, Competitions tying-in the local community, better Lounge Spaces with internet or television for loungers, sales and Demonstrations based on life occasions like Prom, Weddings, Camping Trips, Job Interviews—the more participation the more memorable the shopping experience and the more time shoppers spend with the brand.

3.) Make It Personal.

The main reason that shoppers for special occasion and gifts tend to head for specialty stores is for the special attention and expertise they are given by small storeowners and the fact that they are remembered.

It may be difficult to remember every customers name who floods a Lord & Taylor on a Sunday afternoon, but not being able to find a soul to help you within an entire department floor is not the memory you want shoppers to carry away with them.

Consider the option of electronic check-ins that store information on a customer’s sizes, favorite styles and colors. They can search the catalog with their preferences highlighted and place an online order if the item is out of stock or size. Have a real employee near these machines in each department to further assist.

Uniting a human touch with technology is a surefire way to pushback on the almighty Internet—which doesn’t have a fitting room anyway.

4.) Create A Feeling and Communicate the Difference.

If you work hard to create a difference for your brand, take it to the hole with marketing communications. This seems like a no brainer but do not simply rely on viral or trade press coverage to communicate your new or improved offering. Send a strong message about who you are.

Develop a marketing strategy, invest in a solid communications plan, research the right target consumer, buy the right media. Go all the way. It is time to get back into the game.

Not every chain is going to be able to accomplish most or possibly any of this. I imagine we’ll only see one or two Heroes pull themselves out of the deep retail ravine. But keep in mind that people are no longer going to rush out to stores that offer a sterile shopping experience. We have the Internet for that.

Rochelle Fainstein

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