This month, I would like to open with a great article by David Zietsma of Jackman Reinvents. I want to highlight it because it sounds very much like an article I would've written myself. Core point: don't try to win shoppers with just initial curiosity to get them into stores. That does work in the short term, but the shelf life of that kind of appeal is extremely limited and difficult to maintain. What is better and more lasting is focusing on solving shopper problems. Deliver value.
The hard part is in getting retailers to understand what "value" really means. Too many define it as "making it easier for consumers to buy what I'm selling." That's not value, primarily because it's a base expectation of consumers. As a shopper, I certainly don't expect (or appreciate) you to make it hard for me to buy. Therefore, just making it easy for me to buy is not solving any particular problem that I have defined for myself.
With that in mind, let's look at a few of many, many store innovations and pop-ups that hit the scene in recent months.
HOT: SECOND is the brainchild of Karinna Nobbs, an industry veteran who has moved between major UK retail brands and academia. The concept focuses on enabling consumers to digitally try on fashion, often fashion that has not yet been made into real physical clothing. The focus of the concept is on circular economy and reducing the carbon footprint of fashion in the design phase, but I actually think that misses the point. Yes, that is admirable and necessary. But it leaves an even bigger problem on the table.
Whether the physical garment exists or not, fit is still a big problem in fashion. We've moved past the hump of the question of fit preventing consumers from buying online. Instead, they buy freely online, but they "bracket" (buy multiple sizes of the same item) and then keep what fits and return the rest. While there is significant environmental impact that can be mitigated on the design side of fashion, this returns problem is urgent and growing – and I'm guessing it is at least as wasteful in terms of carbon and cardboard as fashion design processes are.
In terms of the lens of "Are you solving a customer problem?" the answer for me is yes, but they are focused on solving the wrong one. However, kudos for pushing the envelope. The best gauge of whether consumers will have confidence in AR- or AI-assisted fit is whether they can buy something that doesn't even exist yet – and get what they were expecting. If you can solve this problem, the rest of them get a lot easier.
TradeMe is basically the eBay of New Zealand, an auction and resale site for P2P selling. After the holidays, the company opened a pop-up shop specifically for listing unwanted Christmas gifts for resale. By the end of the first day (December 26) nearly 5,000 items had been listed, and that number rose to 21,500 a few days later. Advice recommended for listers was to not list highly unique or personalized items that would be easily recognized, especially by the original gifter.
Solves a consumer problem? It must, or no one would've listed items. Did all the items sell? Considering that one was a "used pizza box," I'm guessing the answer is no. But as retailers struggle to manage returns policies against abusers, it offers an interesting way to handle the issue – rather than just taking everything back. A marketplace for trading or reselling to get what you really wanted might score points with consumers in the future.
Helzberg Diamonds now has ordained employees in all 200 stores. The idea is to buy the engagement ring AND seal the deal with a marriage all in one package – and the wedding ceremony is free. And it's available to anyone who happens to be walking past the store, I guess.
Solve a problem? Helzberg claims that 91% of millennials would seriously consider eloping. Definitely, "microweddings" is a hot topic on the internet these days. However, this feels to me like a move more for the social media buzz than for solving a specific consumer challenge. I can think of few places less intimate to get married than a store in a mall. However, I was a bystander at a proposal once, and there's something to be said for spontaneity and engaging a crowd of strangers in a big life event. That works for proposals. I'm not sure it works for actual weddings.
J.C. Penney is testing a new concept store in Hurst, TX, that has been branded "Penney's." The store is described as having a barber shop, a yoga studio, coffee shops on two levels and a lot more space given over to where shoppers can just sit and hang out. The retailer is also trying out brand extensions into outdoor clothing through its St. John's Bay line, and also more shop-in-shop concepts.
While I'm glad to see J.C. Penney innovating and testing things out, department stores in general have a bigger challenge. If I'm shopping for a red blazer, for example, online that is just a two-word search away. With department stores, the same search for a red blazer could possibly span ten difference places on two floors in order to see all the red blazers. For shoppers, that's an exercise in frustration.
Fortunately for J.C. Penney, its CEO Jill Soltau seems to recognize this fundamental issue. According to Soltau, the recent innovations - driven by focus group research, existing customer data and renewed investments in visual merchandising - are said to make the new Penney's concept much easier to shop.
Finally, I want to close with a collaboration that solves no problem I can think of, especially in Manhattan. Conrad Hotel has partnered with FAO Schwarz (reborn and reimagined) to create a hotel room that is decked out like a toy store, including the famous dance-on piano. Everything in the room can be purchased, of course.
I have many questions. How many times can something get played with before you have to take it out of circulation? How long does it take to clean the room between guests? Do they really clean all those toys? How do you decide how to assort that location? Can you change out toys based on the guest profile? If the hotel is all booked up and this room is the only one available, do they give it out to people who haven't requested it?
As I said, this clearly solves no problem that consumers ever faced, not even first-world problems. I mean, I've entertained bored kids in a hotel room, but that was while staying at the motel down the street from Grandma's house in the middle of nowhere. And with a ready supply of devices, no parent really finds themselves wishing for toys – especially ones that will inevitably lead to the whining ask of "Can we take it home with us?" But that doesn't mean that it's not worth doing.
Not everything that a retailer does needs to be focused on solving consumer problems. Sometimes, delighting them works just as well or better. To David Zietsma's point, sustaining delight over time is much harder. But ultimately, both will play a role in store innovation in the future.