It seems like we hear the same news every day about retail stores, and it's never good news.
Sears has expressed doubt about its future. Macy's is closing stores. The Limited. Ralph Lauren. Now, JCPenney just announced it is closing another 138 stores.
To try to understand why, I do what I often do: I asked my graduate students at NYU where I teach Integrated Marketing. They provide great input, and I learn as much from them as they do from me -- more, actually.
So, how could these stores not be relevant anymore?
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Universally, they told me that their generation skips the shopping trip. Hates the shopping trip. Why? I was a bit shocked because I grew up working at the local mall -- it was as much a social arena as it was a way to pick up a new outfit. But, younger folks have better things to do with their time. They’d much rather shop online and save time. They’d much rather relax at home, go out with friends or participate in an adventure. Hunting a new experience is much more rewarding then hunting a bargain.
As a serial shopper, I can’t necessarily relate, but I get it. People have better things to do than browse around a mall or move from store to store.
So, what’s a retailer to do if they have a physical store? How can it survive?
1. Become an expert.
There’s nothing more compelling than someone who knows their stuff. Become the resident expert on your subject matter and customers will flock to you for advice. Make your retail environment one that showcases your superior expertise and differentiates you from your competitors. Suddenly, you become a retail destination because shoppers need you.
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2. Build an experience in the store.
Physical retail stores can no longer exist just to display products for sale. Instead, think about the space as a showroom full of experiences that will draw customers in to get to know your brand better. Make them understand your brand better than they’d ever be able to do online.
It’s not about selling products, it’s about experiencing the brand. Surround your products in an experience that they’ll remember and share. What kind of experience? All I can say in 140 characters is that it should be unique and relevant to your brand.
3. Link your online to your offline.
Gone are the days when brick-and-mortar stores can stand alone. Make sure you have an e-commerce component to your offering, and make sure it lives in harmony with your physical presence. Link the two to get your customers to cross-fertilize between offerings, creating a rich in-store experience and a fast, convenient website that makes it easy for customers to use both in any given day.
Most importantly, get to know your customers better. You can only build a compelling experience by understanding your customers, so get to know how they live their lives, how they shop for what they need and what they want.
There is a difference. Customers need products and services, but your job is to get them to want those services from your brand.
Then, and only then, will you be able to sustain your brick-and-mortar retail presence.