Malls aren’t dinosaurs, and neither are retail stores. The pains of retailers are real and can be attributed to many factors: too many stores (PacSun), not keeping up with the trends of teens (Aeropostale), outdated stores (Sears), the rise of Amazon (Walmart), the disinterest of millennials (all stores). But the one aspect of a brand that retailers can control is the shopper’s experience.
A recent business trip to Los Angeles brought me to six shopping centers and three marquee retail neighborhoods. Parking lots were full, and everywhere was gobsmacked with people. However, the shopping trip, itself, was lackluster for the most part.
I practically skipped into a boutique contemporary retailer at South Coast Plaza, which is just one of a handful in the United States, as it is one of my go-to designers. Brilliantly, this brand offers different items on its website and through its wholesale partners; I knew this location’s offerings would be unique. I gathered armfuls of dresses and then narrowed my selection, with the idea that I would buy three and then ship one back to the store. The store had a credit-only return policy, but they offered to “consign” the dresses, whereby I would receive the dresses, send back what I didn’t want, and then get charged. It sounded like the ideal situation until the store manager told me that the consignment option was not available to me because I had already tried on the clothing. I was left with three options, as I explained to her: 1. Buy all three dresses and return one for a full refund, 2. Enjoy the consignment option, 3. Leave without making a purchase. The manager told me that she could not waiver from the store policy. I left empty handed.
Another retail experience left me equally baffled. Through Google, I tracked down Adidas Stan Smith sneakers with hot pink trim and was directed to a popular mass sneaker chain. The chain’s website said that product only had a buy-in-store option. During my visit to the Beverly Center, I determined my size, but my desired style was not available in this location. They told me to go to another LA outlet to purchase the sneakers in-person…that’s policy. I was pressed for time and asked if I could give my credit card to them and have the sneaker shipped. No…that’s policy. Eventually I tracked down the shoe on Amazon. My $64.00 sneaker is a blip in the company’s overall sales, but it was an easy, one-click purchase compared to the 45 minutes I had spent in the mass sneaker store. When you add up frustrated bricks-and-mortar shoppers’ purchases, it translates into Amazon’s $107 billion net sales. The inadequate store experience has made it easy for Amazon to turn into Goliath.
These recent experiences are not one-offs. A lack of service has haunted many chains. The Barbie and Ken clones working at Abercrombie & Fitch were elitist and intimidating, becoming one reason cited by progressive Millennials and Gen Zs for turning on the brand. Banana Republic is also off the mark; in a suburban Houston store, signs screamed “New Spring Styles — 25 Percent Off,” next to mannequins sloppily dressed, coupled with sweaters strewn all over a front table; the store offered no curb appeal to engage my friends and me. And mass department stores, which were once all things to all people, seem to offer nothing to no one, not really understanding who the customer is and what she wants to buy.
Retail executives need to listen to the local keepers of their shops — be it one store or thousands — and empower them to make the store experience fantastic, especially given the retail climate we are in today. In May, retail veteran Allen Questrom sat down with Robin Lewis and reminded the audience that everyone at a company needs to feel like they can make a difference in order for a retailer to be successful. Intuitive and disruptive employees are the heartbeat of an organization: they know what is selling, the products people are craving, and to sell more skews. They need to be able to interpret the rules with the goal of improving operations and driving sales. When the voices of those on the frontline voices are heeded, these employees are more apt to be loyal to their company and are the secret sauce to sales success.