Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mod Retro Indie Clothing & Vintage Clothes

ModCloth is an online clothing company that you can visit here: Mod Retro Indie Clothing & Vintage Clothes. Now before you go "yawn" another clothing manufacturer, check out their very clever function called "Be the Buyer". Here, as the customer, you can vote on what garment ModCloth will make next. It's democratic customer centric fashion. The item(s) with the highest votes are manufactured and rolled out to the general public. As the voter, you get an email notifying you when the item is being released so you get first dibs on the new couture.

Now isn't this a great idea? Talk about the ultimate in customer engagement. Imagine this concept at a campus store. Soft goods buyers could whittle down the endless array of choices. Say the top ten or twenty new items that they might carry in the store for the upcoming season. Pop up some pics of the garments, broadcast on your social networking sites, and get students to vote on what they would like to see. Pretty cool huh? Imagine the excitement and engagement you could generate from this idea. All with just a little discipline and future planning.

Talk about bringing the store of the future to you now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to avoid customers

I think retailers come up with the most clever ways to avoid the hassle of having actual customers come into their store. The picture above is one of the best examples. The text reads:

"By entering into, and/or remaining on these premises, you hereby consent and agree to a search of your belongings, including, but not limited to your purses, backpacks, bags and pockets".

It just screams welcome to our store doesn't it? This sign was posted prominently on the front door of the retail establishment. The general hostile tone was further reinforced by a lackadaisical security guard standing around, presumably ready to conduct the strip search should you want to browse within the retail compound.

Yes I know that theft is a big problem in retail. But putting up legalese signs such as this only make customers avoid your business, and search out your competitors that welcome and embrace them. Treat the customer as the whole person - not as a set of problems.

Engaging the Customers: The Old Navy Approach

Last weekend I went shopping at "The Gap" and "Old Navy". I'm not a big shopper of either of these stores, nor their pricier "Banana Republic" line. It always seems to be a bit too beige and chinos for me. Never mind, I had a "friends and family" card for a discount weekend, and I can always find something to buy.

The "Old Navy" I visited is the new layout that they are rolling out to all their stores. They are proud of their "racetrack" configuration. I suppose it works, as you wander down their yellow brick road through the store, rather than back and forth into large merchandise cubicles of the past. Yet, this racetrack means change rooms in the middle of the store. It is a bit off putting actually. It looks like a locker room at the gym, complete with a headset wearing attendant, burdened down with discarded clothing.

Besides the vaguely unpleasant locker room, I noticed "Old Navy's" new "Pose with the Plastic Pros" campaign.Old Navy is encouraging customers to pose with their "SuperModelquin" (That's the name!) and then upload the pic at the "Old Navy" site for a chance to win $100,000.

Hopefully the 100 grand is in cash, and you don't have to spend it all at "Old Navy". It's a good campaign though, giving customers a chance to engage with the brand in a fun and playful way. The campaign is great for "Old Navy" as well, allowing them to wring whatever branding is left with those ubiquitous advertising "SuperModelquins"

With Apple encouraging customers to take pics next to the cutout "apple geeks" in their stores, it seems to me a trend is developing. Inviting customers to be part of, and to live the brand through visual merchandising. Letting customers connect to the display, rather than the hands off, look, but don't touch approach, of the past. These campaigns create some customer excitement that is sorely lacking in retail today.

Made me wonder how independent stores could get involved in a similar customer engagement merchandising activity. Students on campus would get into this idea, if for no other reason that they enjoy stores that are fun and full of life. I could see a campaign working at a college store with perhaps, the mascot? Posing with a cutout of the College President? Remember those big wooden displays you stick your head through at the county fair? That's the kind of playful idea that builds traffic into the store and makes the store bigger than the sum of it's parts.

But, please don't create your own SuperDuperModelMannequins. They scare me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

To Be Authentic

Twice today I heard speakers talking about authenticity. The need for people, especially in the service industry, to eschew the traditional problem solving nature of customer service and develop a lasting positive connection with their customers. While Soledad O’Brien focused on authenticity in our interactions on a cultural and social level, Sandy Shugart spoke of authenticity within higher education institutions.

Shugart focused his talk of building authentic whole person relationships, specifically with students. To create this relationship, service leaders need to step back and think how the student thinks. “don’t make me feel stupid” says the student customer, and says this as they attempt to unravel the often cryptic and poorly explained textbook organization system in many college stores. “Anticipate what I need” and “make me feel that I have a friend inside” are other student customer demands, reinforcing the need for personalized systems and turning the customer into a person rather than a problem to be solved.

Shugart’s comments are reinforced when we consider that our core student customers are what Shubert refers to as the first Post Modern Generation. A terms that illustrates how this generation thinks and acts is remarkably different than that of the boomer generation.

As the boomer generation, we see ourselves as problem solvers. Problems must be investigated, analyzed and corrected. For the post modern student, there is an ingrained acceptance that “stuff happens”. Boomers look for movement forward, progress must be made. On the other side of the coin, post moderns see events as random. Movement is not always forward, progress is not guaranteed.

When applied to our attitudes of institutions, we see these institutions and big organizations as being fundamentally moral. For the post modern student, the focus is suspicion, and that institutions are manipulative. A scam. This applies throughout any educational institution , and the bookstore, often the public face of the campus, is viewed with a suspicious lens by the post modern student.

Yet, regardless of this new set of attitudes with today’s students, creating authentic relationships, building trust and delivering value are effective responses for the college bookstore in order to succeed now and in the future.

The Mall of Millenia

Strolling through the Mall of Millennia, I was reminded of how many clever ideas exist in the shopping mall if you keep your eyes open. From the total shopping mall landscape, right down to individual store display elements. What I noticed most of all though was some strong retail themes that are in vogue right now.

Found item seems to have a great presence in a number of stores. Reclaimed and recycled wood benches, desks and tables are extremely popular as many retailers quietly emulate the Anthropologie visual esthetic. Old leather covered display tables and cash desks. A single 1940’s bicycle was the display element in a retailers window. Cupboards and drawers used as merchandising units. Recycling and reusing materials for display purposes.

Urban Outfitters seems to take this concept to the extreme in their Mall of Millennia store. Deconstructed and warehouse styled, the use of plywood as the singular design element is prevalent. Many wondered at copying this style at their own stores. While it certainly looks appealing, it is a reminder that to emulate the Urban Outfitters style means going big or gong home. You can’t do it piece meal. It seems to only work if you plan on transforming your entire store presence into these trendy urban retail barns.

In terms of color, Green is the color. Shades of vibrant green (and some orange) dominate in store merchandise and visual identity. So frequent was this color throughout the mall stores, you begin to wonder if perhaps green is now too popular, too common to be an “in” trendy color. After all, Pantone has moved on to turquoise as the color of the year. Perhaps retailers are just about ready to move onto this new color palette and leave green in the dust.

Overall visual design for retailers right now is on simplicity. Oneness. Simplicity in product placement and visual presentation. The one bicycle in the window was a sample of this, as was the large steamer trunk in another. Simple and arresting. Once again, Apple leads the way in their visual design. Disciplined and engaging. Simple cardboard cutouts of Apple reps greet you from the window. As we stood there, customers ran in to stand with the cutouts at their partner took pics. A good example of customer engagement.

And the total mall itself? An amazingly comfortable and community focused structure. A sense of height over the two levels. Wide open center courtyard areas for sitting and visiting. A vast glass atrium runs the length of the mall. I wondered how much inspiration could be gleaned from this mall when constructing Student union buildings on campus.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Online Learning and Campus Retail

The New York Times had an interesting discussion on their "Room for Debate" blog yesterday. The discussion was focused on the value of online learning on college campuses, and who benefits - the college or the student? A number of education pundits weigh in, and the majority of authors were of the opinion that nothing beats the classroom experience.

I thought what was missing from this discussion was the adult lifelong learning experience, as well as career centered learning. Often we have the opportunity to take advantage of educational sessions at conferences and seminars. However, there is a growth in online learning opportunities these days. This is a great way to get some valuable advice and education in a cost effective way. I found these online sessions at the www.camex.org website:

"Creating Retail Events" is a good basic primer on integrating the campus store into college life. A number of examples, from sustainability to student choirs, show how a campus store can create excitement and traffic in the store through special events. There is not a one size fits all model for every campus and college store. Rather, the store needs to seek out the activities and desires of their unique customer base, and develop relationships that create unique and engaging events.

"Visual Merchandising" is a well developed and smart introduction to the basics of VM, not only at campus stores, but also at trend setting general retailers. You can tell that Patty McCray-Roberts knows her stuff, and she walks us through all the visual merchandising principles of balance, color, themes, and focal points. I cheered out loud when she talked about simplicity in display. So important - remove the clutter!

So impressive, I would take this presentation and show it to all my staff at orientation, when talking about the power of merchandising and in store marketing.

"Creating a Team that Delivers" is another good basic primer on developing strong and powerful teams with your store. Once again, the power of good recruitment, orientation and training is emphasized as the cornerstone of creating a strong positive team culture. I liked the reminder to celebrate employee success - the need to say thanks, and value each employee's contribution to the store's success.

There are more sessions to watch and hear. Check them out, and make an employee lunch out of it, creating a quick on site educational moment for all.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A walk down the shopping mall

I've been thinking of shopping malls lately. I'm not sure why. It's not like visiting a mall is that much of an adventure anymore. It's a site for shopping and eating. A place to hang out if you are of a certain age. A vast, blocks long structure, surrounded by a sea of parking spaces. An ongoing edifice to satisfying needs and wants. The shopping mall is now ubiquitous. Every city has one, or four. The Mall has become the main street of suburban life.

Although the first enclosed mall opened in Cleveland in 1890, the shopping mall concept gained steam in the 1950's. Like much of the 50s, the enthusiasm for a new era lifestyle developed. Malls were part of this trend, as families moved to the suburbs, creating whole new cities that needed a retail presence. The Shopping Mall provided the suburbanites with a new way to shop. Climate controlled venues with multiple retailers all in one convenient location, and lots of room to park the Buick.

The decades turned, and the shopping malls continued to expand. The concept never changed much, just slightly updated to express the times. The focus was on utility. Malls were a shopping venue, not the entertainment complexes so popular today. Focus was on the "anchor tenant" - the big discount or general department stores, driving traffic to the mall, and hopefully into the smaller retail locations.

My first retail job was in a small suburban mall. I worked in the Bookstore there. Work was a relative term, since I just wanted to be in the store. I was 15, and too young to run the cash register, so my job was to shelf books and work on the sales floor. I was paid in books. It was a year or so later when the bookstore owner decided that, perhaps I could operate the cash register, and starting paying me in real money. Which was fine by me. I bought books, or turned my paycheck over to the neighboring record store.

This was the early eighties, and malls were not what we know them to be now. The mall was tired and gloomy. Poor lighting and ancient ceramic tiles, in colors like avocado and dirt brown. Little attempt was made to create any atmosphere in the echoing corridors. Santa was played by the maintenance man, and each year, at Easter, the mall management would open the bunny petting zoo to toddlers.

There was though, a sense of community. Retailers covered each others stores so you could have a bathroom break. The stores were all independents who lived in the community. Owners, managers and staff all got together for social and sporting events. We laughed, played and chatted out days away, standing at our storefronts. It was a Frank Capra movie, and across America the same sense of community, with just a small focus on consumerism was playing out in the same way.

But it was to be the end of an era. The recession rolled in. Stores began to close, empty mall spaces became more and more frequent. The customers dwindled, and the echos in the mall became louder.. Independent retailers, once the backbone of shopping malls, were pushed out in favor of cookie cutter national chains. Anchors moved out and retreated. Malls were closed and torn down. After thirty years of growth and replication, the shopping mall died.

It took a few years for "the mall" concept to recover. Retailers experimented with cheaper strip mall configurations. Large retailers built there own stand alone venues, and more recently, the "big box" format took hold. Eventually though, investors saw the shopping mall complex as a draw. But the tired sensible 1950's mall configuration was thrown out. The focus was capturing people's imagination and creating a destination for play. The mega mall was born. While retail is still an essential component, the focus, the essence of the new mall, is on entertainment. Multiplexes, dozens of dining options, kids play areas and special events. The Mall was not about the utility of buying underwear, but rather a place to hang out, play and connect with people.

This experience was also combined with the aspirational needs of the public. Glitz, glamour and brand names predominate. Fendi handbags sit like jewels in upscale retailers. The focus of shoppers turned to brand names. The customer expectation was a shopping destination that made them feel like a million bucks. Leather chairs to relax in, the sounds of local choirs and piano players. Valet parking. The mall is the new glamour centre for the middle class.

The new, "bright lights, big city" concept played across the country. Malls have been renovated and rejuvenated to meet the needs of consumer aspirational desires. And, as time has progressed and profit becomes the main objective, the glamor mall creeps into the specialty market. To the college campuses and international airports of the country. Drilling the experiential excitement into new, niche markets.

This is I suppose, progress. Bright lights and hyper excitement replace the main street mall of yesterday. Profits and ROI have replaced community and local focus. Mall rats took over the food court. The elevator music gets louder and louder. Santa is a hired professional from out of town.

At least the avocado tiles have disappeared.