The new era of retail

Doug Stephens

Doug Stephens can tell you all about the decline of brick-and-mortar retail. He can tell you all about the projected 8,642 retail stores—many of them furniture retail stores—that are expected to shutter this year. Or how 58 percent of all online product searches begin on (where else?) Amazon.

In fact, Stephens, one of the world’s most innovative retail industry futurists, offered up those bleak numbers and more to furniture retailers at this week’s High Point Market. But in the same breath Stephens offered his audience hope at the HFA hosted seminar in the High Point Theatre. More important, he offered them a road map to fending off online competitors like Amazon, Wayfair and Ikea.

“With e-commerce growing every month, furniture retailers need to rethink their role in the new marketplace,” said Stephens. “You can’t afford to do business the way your used to or you’ll be one of those brick and mortar stores that closes. Maybe not by the end of this year or even next year, but very soon.”

Stephens said retailers need to throw out the old role of selling furniture, which consisted of three pillars: 1. Merchandise the product. 2 Offer information about the product. 3. Facilitate the purchase.

“If we were really being honest those pillars can easily be handled by any e-commerce site out there,” Stephens told retailers. “In fact, they’re doing that right now.”

But there’s one thing Wayfair and Amazon can never provide customers through their e-commerce sites, said Stephens. “They can’t provide the experience your physical space can provide, and that’s what has to change. What are you doing in your physical space, your brick-and-mortar store on Main Street, or in the strip mall, or wherever you call home—what are you doing to provide the best possible customer experience?”

As the physical store evolves from a transactional-based operation into an experiential-based one, Stephens shared five characteristics he’s seen successful brands employ to deliver a memorable in-store experience.

Surprise! “Great brands surprise you when you least expect it,” says Stephens. “Or maybe you’re always expecting to be surprised and you are.” One example Stephens offered was Macy’s recent investment in virtual reality technology for its furniture department. The chain implemented the technology in 40 stores this year and expects that number to grow to 90 by January. The upside to the technology? Macy’s is enjoying a 60-percent greater average order, according to Stephens.

Unique. This one, says Stephens, should be a no-brainer. “The retail crowd is big, and everyone is packed together,” he said. “What are you doing to stand out? You need to change the script, change the language. Set yourself apart.”

Look no further than Starbucks for inspiration, says Stephens. Nobody walks into a Starbucks and asks for a particular size of coffee. The company has successfully manipulated the language from medium and large to venti and grande to make the customer feel like they are getting something unique. “How can you do the same at your store to stand out?” asks Stephens.

Personalize. “Everyone likes to feel special,” said Stephens. “You rarely feel special on an e-commerce site. Just point, click and move on.” Retailers need to make every customer who walks through their doors feel like that product or that experience is just for them.

“Certainly, special-order furniture is one way, but so is a meaningful conversation with a sales associate, “The best brands always make you feel like there’s some element of the experience that was created with just you in mind that day.”

[Congress leaves marketplace fairness to states]

Engage. “Stores need to be less about products and more about productions,” he said. This means moving beyond commerce to community through events—be they art showings, wine tasting or pet adoptions. Think of ways your store can engage customers with your furniture. Stephens pointed to Globetrotter, an athletic gear retailer in Germany that delivers memorable experiences around their product. From scuba diving tanks to all-weather chambers, customers can field test Globetrotters new apparel in store. But they don’t stop there. Shoppers share their experiences on social media and Globetrotter’s message spreads.

Stephens pointed out that last year Nike winnowed its list of retail partners down to 40. “They’re not cluttering and confusing, they’re focusing on the experience,” Stephens said. “The best brands don’t just create stores, they don’t just build stores—they really build stories. As a consumer, you feel as if you’ve walked into this story.”

Repeat. Stephens says this is by far the most important characteristic to strive for. “The ability to execute every single time is important,” says Stephens. “You can’t afford to say, ‘Sorry about your experience. We were short staffed.’ Stephens says retailers need to think of their store as a stage. “Everyone needs to know their marks and their lines,” he said. “Every morning you open should be like opening night.”

Surprise, Unique, Personalize, Engage and Repeat. In other words, says Stephens, follow the acronym: “Be SUPER.”

A big part of the new customer experience in your store will hinge on your sales associates, he said.

As retail stores become vehicles for experiences that allow brands to connect with consumers, retailers need to expand the role of their associates to thrive in the new retail environment.

“Your associates are no longer allowed to be mere clerks,” says Stephens. “We’re moving from a place where the role is less clerk and more brand ambassador.”

With instant access to product information online, today’s customers are walking into your store armed with more knowledge than ever before. “It’s not just enough to find me a price or look up a SKU when I walk into a store,” says Stephens. “I want to talk to someone who not only knows the product but has used it. Somebody who can champion that recliner or motion sofa. I want a connection. That’s what I want from an associate.

“Brands like yours? The ones that can distinguish themselves in 2019 and beyond? They won’t do it through pricing or convenience. That’s only part of the equation. You’re going to differentiate yourself through your customer experience.”

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