Monday’s solar eclipse truly took North America by storm. While the eclipse is an uncommon event, it isn’t as once-in-a-lifetime as some [marketers] claimed. The last total solar eclipse visible from all 50 states occurred in 1918, but total solar eclipses actually occur somewhere on Earth about every 18 months. Interest in this year’s solar phenomenon, however, was fueled like none before it by the power of boundless social media content and relentless news reports.
As an industry seeking excuses to engage with their customers, retail had plenty of warning that this eclipse was going to be as much cultural phenomenon as solar. And while exact viewing statistics are impossible to estimate, the turnout was truly impressive:
- CNN published a survey predicting that over 150 million people in the US planned to watch the eclipse.
- Over 20 million people were expected to make the trek to watch from locations within the “path of totality.”
- Tens of millions watched from the dozens of live feeds streaming online
And who knows how many more simply went outside to watch with special eclipse glasses, carefully crafted cardboard boxes, or, as I did, with a simple kitchen colander – Neil Degrasse Tyson’s home viewer hack – where each of those tiny colander holes acted as a pinhole camera, safely revealing hundreds of images of the crescent sun on my driveway.
A Cultural Phenomenon
In addition to being a cultural phenomenon, the eclipse also represented an opportunity to become a retail phenomenon. I don’t just mean that the eclipse was an opportunity to generate sales increases by selling special viewing glasses, however. I mean that the eclipse was an opportunity to engage with people in unique and creative ways.
The eclipse represented the type of phenomenon that draws people together in search of a shared communal experience. And if we have learned anything lately, the future of retail stores will be entirely driven by the experiences they offer.
Outside of stores directly in the “path of totality,” I heard of a few other retailers that attempted to connect with people via the eclipse. Warby Parker – always on brand, it seems – gave away free pairs of the special viewing glasses. 7-Eleven took it one step further by offering solar eclipse glasses approved for viewing by the American Astronomical Society paired with shiny, selfie-inducing Chrome Dome Slurpee cups. The metallic dome top was perfect for taking reflective photos to be shared on social media.
Endless Chances to Engage
There are so many ways national retail brands could have taken advantage of this opportunity so tailor-made for engagement: Electronics retailers could have held classes on how to photograph the eclipse. Or they could have hosted viewing parties featuring camera experts in store parking lots. Apparel retailers could have designed eclipse-inspired apparel and hosted viewing parties ripe for social media shares. Bookstores could have hosted lectures by eclipse experts and authors. Kitchen and cookware retailers could have hosted classes for hosting eclipse-themed parties. Toy retailers could have hosted educational parties for kids and taught kids about the science behind the event, with maybe free glasses and special offers on astrology toys.
The possibilities were limited only by imagination.
Unfortunately, I think many retailers may have failed to capitalize on the engagement possibilities inherent in the eclipse. But fear not. While total solar eclipses are rare, opportunities to engage are not. We just have to keep our eyes open for them – no special glasses required.