Have you heard? The retail apocalypse is upon us; the malls have turned to mausoleums, coffins the size of Costco, empty of everyone except a dwindling staff and the ghosts of that vanished entity called the customer. American retail is an over-built memorial to a bygone era of once ferocious spending and commerce. The humming turbines have ground to a halt. The Matrix has landed and we are the digital, disembodied entities blindly driving a consumer culture, ruled by a ubiquitous overlord called Amazon. Or is that Bezos? Or Beelzebub? And the drones of free delivery crowd the skies.
Now, let’s leave that apocalyptic story and start again.
The real story is mixed. REI, Starbucks, and Nordstrom’s continue to meet the challenge and thrive, with loyal customers and new concepts; but Borders is long gone, while J.C. Penney, Macy’s, and Sears seem destined to spiral downwards into failure. If you’re reading this journal, you already know the numbers. Bankruptcies are up; but the National Retail Federation claims a more careful look at the data reveals growth and success.
And if you read the business journals these days you already know too many theories on how to improve the retail experience. Integrate the clicks and bricks; drive the data; go with the artisanal and authentic.
Yes, more stories, now apply them as and how you will. Much of this is true, but there’s little need to say it again.
So, here’s my story and it begins with a question:
What is your story and how will you tell it?
This is my answer.
Community, Culture and the Human Story
As a retailer, you are in the business of creating a community, a community of shared interests and values, behaviors and attitudes and beliefs. Anthropologists call this culture, the panoply of stories, ideas, habits and attitudes that sustain all human beings. This means that in your business people come first. Always. This includes customers, staff, the UPS lady who delivers the latest shipment, and the homeless man who wanders in off the streets, muttering, sullen and lost. Yes, the homeless man; in fact, he may be the most important person you deal with that day.
“Hi. What’s your name? Hi, Ray, my name’s Todd. Are you hungry? Can I buy you a cup of coffee? C’mon, let’s walk down to Starbucks and I’ll buy you coffee and a snack.”
Respect everyone, in word and action; engage everyone with joy and curiosity, because you are teaching by example, creating an ethos and determining the shape of your in-store culture. You are telling, you are showing your customers and staff how even the least among us is to be treated.
Staff, too, must be brought into a shared circle of community, well trained and well paid. Expectations about what they need to know and how to interact with customers must be consistent and crystal clear. What is the story you want them to tell? How should they tell it? This clarity brings security and confidence, which translates into motivation and sales. And their success should bring positive reinforcement, words of encouragement and tangible rewards. This is key to retaining great and loyal staff. If you do this, you’ll soon have a tightly knit family, a community, geared to shared success and customer service.
Enter Walt Disney.
The Disney Effect
Sixty years ago, when her children were young, a friend tells me she used to see Walt Disney driving an old jalopy through Frontierland, an exuberant grin on his face, looking like a kid in a candy store. He had created a world he loved, that brought meaning and pleasure to himself and to others. He’d created a stage, had taken his customers on an adventure, and they kept coming back. Of course, all of it was artificial, a place of make-believe and fantasy, but he genuinely loved it. It expressed his desires, his sense of play, his loves and his joys—his life.
Your store is your Disneyland. So here’s the next question. What is your world? Or perhaps, what is the best stage for your story, and how do you want to tell it?
What does that mean? Your customers enter a stage of your making. They’re the central characters and your staff the ensemble that creates the context, the setting of the story. Lighting, music, the way a sweater is folded, the textures and colors, all of it is stagecraft, as with Walt Disney, artificial, but intimate and immersive. Beautiful displays tell a story and create a mood. When a customer participates in an adventure well staged, they remember and they want to return. They may even take photographs and post them on Instagram or on Facebook.
Yes, they just might do some advertising for you.
The Elevator Effect
The initial greeting begins the adventure. It should be prompt and enthusiastic, curious and engaged without overstepping boundaries.
Think of it this way. Have you ever stepped into an elevator and stood in silence with another person? The longer you wait to speak, the more awkward the ride. So it is with customers. Silence kills retail.
Much, perhaps too much, has been written about how to sell the product, close the deal. “No yes or no questions! They’ll just say no.” “Get them to try it on.” Those were the first two I was taught, and they work. But after the greeting, how should your staff engage the customer? Armed with great product knowledge, what next?
Know thyself is the key that enables anyone to reach their highest sales potential. Every person has an authentic voice and manner, a way of engaging others honestly and openly. And because everyone is different, every approach will also be different. The best sales people sell themselves, their own story, their integrity, their honesty and honor. Your job is to help them find that voice, which will sustain and grow your business and change their lives forever.
The Museum Cafe
Before I went to Amsterdam, a friend, who’d recently been there, told me I had to see the Van Gogh exhibit. “Exquisite! And when you go to the cafe there, make sure you have the quiche!” Of course, I went; and as always in the hallowed halls of the Museum proper, visitors stood before the paintings in silence or spoke in whispers and muted tones, reverent and contemplative.
Then I went to the cafe. What a difference! The smell of coffee and, yes, quiche, the clatter of dishware, animated conversation, human warmth and light, where people wanted to linger and share and taste! This is the immersive experience you want to create, a physically engaged mode of participation. As said, silence kills retail. The bustling cafe is a place where people want to be and to stay, to linger and participate in the community you’ve defined. Serve coffee; set up a wine bar; create intimate, physical spaces where people can converse and play. This is the physically embodied tone of the adventure and community you choose to share. The customer who engages in these activities and settings, social and physical, is a customer who will stay longer, buy more, and return.
Ritual and Repetition
Whether we like it or not, the human being is an embodied individual. Our readily available digital devices and virtual worlds might convince us otherwise, but our physical needs and desires intervene and call us to act. It’s as simple as a person asking themselves, even in an unconscious way (or perhaps most of all!), what do I need? Where will I go?
And the human animal is a creature of habit. Routines bring the comfort of stability and simplicity. Most of these routines evolve naturally when our choices and behaviors bring positive emotional connections, especially when coupled with physical behavior and safe environments.
Anthropologists call these rituals.
If a retail business tells its story well in all the modes we’ve described, we are sharing an ethos, a place, a community of meaning and value that will be sustained by repetition, and that most human of acts, ritual. Customers will return; sales will go up; and value, in all its multiple meanings, will flourish.
The Stories We Tell
Yes, we live in a world of competing stories, stories that tell us who we are and how to act. All of us; all the time. And the stories we tell determine the shape of our lives, the success of our families, our businesses, and even the destiny of our country. Here’s my advice. Find your story as genuinely and openly as you can and share it with employees and customers, with strangers and friends. Let it permeate every aspect of your business and shape the retail experience you’re sharing. Tell it through the communities you build, the physical and human environments you create and sustain.
There’s really only one question in life: What’s your story and how do you choose to tell it?
Todd Weir is a “brand philosopher” and industry observer. He applies the theories of the late southern existential writer Walker Percy to the world around us.
SEE ALSO: “The Connection Between Narrative and Purpose” by John Hagel III