Retail's Renewed Relevance (or Not): The Crossroads Moment
I have been speaking in recent days with senior leadership at various big and small retailers. In prior years, these conversations have tended towards the economic, as in plans for Black Friday or even Thanksgiving Thursday store hours and promotions, ‘hero’ products offered at deep discounts to build traffic, the interplay between e-sales and retail. The hope that ‘business-as-usual’ promotions can somehow gain better than last year’s same store results.
This year, there is a different theme: How to reassert retail relevance without alienating the 49 percent of shoppers (and employees) who are angry with the other 49 percent. Brands can speak through advertising to inclusivity and positive values, but it is at retail such values come to ground, or don’t.
What do I mean? Starbucks is reportedly participating in a Seattle program to be a ‘safe haven’ for LGBT people who are the victims of hate crimes, in real time. Store personnel are being trained in what to do, right this minute, if someone is being attacked nearby. This speaks to a genuine sense of vulnerability that attaches not solely to LGBT people, of course, but also to Muslims, women and blacks. The white noise of ambient intimidation masks the low-level mechanized purr emanating from the IV drip of terror, on the part of store personnel, as well as shoppers. If not dealt with, it threatens to further erode our willingness as consumers to venture out.
What keeps these executives up at night: States which allow consumers to shop while holstering (concealed or not) weapons. Furious and ready-to-ignite partisans on both sides of the gulf separating us into red and blue people; any twitch in the direction of one polarizing POV or the other as inferred from a sign, product or cashier comment can cause a genuine flare up and meltdown. And, of course, the lone wolf nutcase, bent on murder and pandemonium. The answer they know is an approach grounded in the toughest of all retail strategies to deliver: training, training and more training. Not just ‘shelter in place,’ but real sensitivity, an instantaneous reading of the moment, with clear, well-rehearsed steps to take and mechanisms in place to speed toward safe resolution. Caveat: What must they pay sales associates to perform on the front lines of fury?
For some of the more hopeful folks I’ve been speaking with, this can be one of the social functions of retail: Sanctuary in a world increasingly unlikely to offer it. Churches once did, as witness the moving drama at the heart of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But, the encroaching realities of best business practice into church management doctrine has meant the cost/benefit analysis of staying open 24/7, coupled with the risk of bad behaviors and vandalism has sharply curtailed a ‘fling wide the door’ ethic. Cities once claimed to, but the term ‘sanctuary city’ has fallen into disrepute. So, increasingly retail may have a role to play here. There is profound risk tethered to the potential reward of renewed relevance. Seems like a time for genuine leadership.