Thursday, April 15, 2010

Retailing Community

Cathy Langer is the lead buyer at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. Speaking on Bob Edwards radio show this week, Langer was asked why people should continue to buy books from their independent bookstore. Langer mentioned the obvious. Knowledgeable staff and independents keeping money in the community. She also stressed the importance of community. Local bookstores play a large role in knitting people together in a central welcoming environment.

I twigged on this this simple phrase "community". It seems that in the past year or so, there is a noticeable shift going on. Retailers moving out of the mass merchant business model of the past, now focusing their attention on a new strategy - that of developing a sense of ownership with the customer. Connecting to clients on another level, and seeing the customer as their friend and partner.

There is nothing new here. This strive for community, linking your business to higher aspirations of customers, has been going on for years. It used to be that retailers developed stores around the concept of the "third place". Work, home, the big mega shopping experience. But this fell out of favor, not only because retailers started to feel that customers were not spending enough within this sparkling "third place", but that customers just were not buying it. The focus shifted. Back to the tried and true of mass merchandising and fast checkout lines. Customers wanted to get in and get out. No dawdling.

Yet the community spirit focus seems to be making a resurgence. Booksellers, and campus bookstores in particular, see this community enticement as one way to combat the every growing threat of electronic readers, books, DYI Publishing and the like. The future of book and campus retailing seems to be about weaving yourself into the lives of your customers. Making yourself indispensable. Offering services and products that complement and enhance your customers lives.

But this community focus is not unique to the bookselling industry. Companies all over are seeing this as a way to connect, a chance to be good corporate citizens, and develop relationship with their customers that go far and beyond a simple sale of widgets. Retailing, marketing and branding. Real customer connections are on the rise. Not only to drive sales, but also to develop (hopefully) life long relationships with buyers, long after the economic malaise of now has finished.

Telus, A telecommunications company in Canada, is one that is striving to build a higher purpose connection. Recently in Toronto, Canada, Telus developed a clever take away campaign to support their new site Posters in one of the banking centres in Toronto advertised the new service, and then were covered with 1000 blue butterfly magnets. Customers and passer bys were encouraged to take the magnets from the poster. What's unique about tis campaign is not only the beautiful giveaway (who doesn't like a butterfly?), but also the customer connection. A simple interactive takeaway that is a visual reminder of your business - A way that customers can connect with your brand, feel part of the community experience, without spending a dime.

This could be scaled down for a campus retailer. Magnets of mascots, imagery that evokes the campus, or just anything compelling that pulls the customers into your brand and store can be developed. The key of course, is to find something clever and different that evokes the spirit of the campus store. Something that stands out above the marketing noise to build community connections.

A more interactive community experience, is the developing "CarrotMob". What on earth is a "Carrot Mob'? Well it's a small scale social media flash mob that is concentrating it's effort on getting shoppers out to certain independent businesses for a specific day, with the goal of all profits donated towards energy efficient sustainable improvements within the business. What's exciting about this is the opportunities for campus stores. With a high percentage of core customers engaged in the environmental and sustainability movement, along with a desire for fun and frivolity in the places that they shop, the campus store is in a great position to capitalize on this movement. Store staff (and customers!) dress up as carrots and tomatoes to express there support of this movement. Born in San Francisco, by Brent Shulkin, the movement has grown to over 30 cities in the US and Canada. You can learn more about Carrot Mobs and how to organize one in your community here.

Other community groups and business event connections include "Crop Mobs", ( where citizens go out to small farms and spend the day harvesting potatoes and the like. Once again the connection is to creating a consumer experience. Bringing customers into the production cycle, and developing sustainable, environmentally sensitive business practice. Consumers as part of the solution, not part of the end product.

Customers can also be the arbitrator of your product selection. As I wrote about a week or two, companies are allowing the customer in to vote on their favorite fashion styles. But the social networking world has grown from this. One of the new, upcoming trends is the practice of advertising your "hauls". Adolescents from across the country are posting YouTube videos of their recent purchases. Why they bought them, and why they love them. It's a dream come true for advertising and marketing gurus. Another example of the community connection, and the ongoing relationship with the store that people shop at. I'm not sure your going to see a "hauls" video about the purchase of textbooks and pencils from the college store, but wouldn't it be interesting if such a thing was posted? Here's a sample of a typical shopping fashion haul with two charming girls talking about their purchases and the upcoming dance:

As an aside, it's seems to me that campus stores are well positioned to coordinate and implement "flash mobs" on campus. Another way to develop fun and exciting community relationships at little cost, to an audience that knows what a flash mob is.

If you have been in business for awhile, your brand might seem ubiquitous. You might be known but boring. Everyone understands what you are on a basic level. Sound like a college store? Same problem for the local YMCA. Everyone knows the Y, almost intuitively, but not exactly the scope of the services that they offer. That's why the YMCA of Vancouver, BC, created a branding campaign that is beautiful and passionate of what their services are all about. They hired the creative firm of TBWA in Vancouver to develop a campaign to showcase not the Y pool or exercise equipment, but the sense of connectedness and community that exists with a Y membership.

The Ad campaign was simple, compelling and provocative. First, the firm used hand drawn signs through the Vancouver area asking questions; Why don't people hold the door for each other anymore? When did smiling at someone of the street become creepy? When did we stop letting our kids walk to school? The questions evoke a real emotional response. You need to stop and think. It's been a long time since kids could walk to school! Why is that? They followed up these questions with a beautiful and smart YouTube video (see below), using cut and paste animation. It is simple and powerful. A message of getting back to community, eschewing the present world order of individuality and isolation. It is one of the most beautiful and compelling branding campaigns in years. YMCA's all across North America are interested in using it, and when I first saw it, I thought that it was perfect for the campus store environment.

Dressing up as carrots, giving away blue butterflies, picking potatoes and paper cut animation. All examples of community and emotional connection with your customers. All scalable and possible in the campus retail market. The future of the college store might be 2015.

But really it is now.

No comments: