Retail Would Be Grand, If It Weren't for Those Nasty Customers
I recently gave a speech in Atlanta at a meeting attracting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small retailers and the folks who sell to them: AmericasMart. The topic was Reinventing Retail – and, of course, the talk and follow-up Q&A surfed on a powerful tide of urgency. The storm is upon us.
The good news/bad news equation for this audience is straightforward: Good news: Shoppers love the “discovery” showcased by small, bespoke shops. Second piece of good news: We want to learn the backstory of goods worth shopping. We want to know the merchant behind the goods cares about her wares.
Net-Net: If there’s heat to be found in retail, it is here. Whether for tabletop “upcycled colored silver” home decor, tribal print fabrics, bespoke Christmas ornaments, custom costume jewelry, and one-of-a-kind fashion looks. Walking the floor was revelatory. Discoveries all over the place.
The bad news: These folks are typically located within malls, strip shopping centers and commercial streets in urban areas, which are pretty much dusty, dying and, in many cases, already decaying. As Sears, Macy’s, Bloomies, the Gap, Limited and others drop away, there won’t be enough traffic to ensure discovery happens at these well-curated boutiques.
But wait, there’s more. Bad news that is. Most of these charming entrepreneurs had adopted the sort of herd mentality already shown to be ineffective by the ‘big guys.’ They’ve created an on-line presence and figured out how to discount their wares, further eroding both margin and meaning from the shopping experience.
Thus, the worst news from my perspective: At a time when human interaction (albeit of the anonymous, Starbucks and movie theatre variety) demands a premium, these proprietors were irritated to have children coming into their emporia, angered to realize new customers weren’t willing to immediately commit to their design suggestions, and frustrated by the emerging vagaries of retail commerce. But they save their most sincere outrage for – wait for it – the customers themselves.
“Shoppers never look up from their cell phones,” one complained bitterly to me. “No matter what kind of window display I create, they aren’t looking. They stumble in and stumble out in a daze of texts, Instagram photos of meals their friends are having without them, all the while SnapChatting with people they’ve probably never met. They are giggling and staring into their screens, so who has time to discover anything in the real world?”
I left Atlanta both energized by the creativity of the goods on display and enervated by the disruption wrought by mutual incivility: As goes retail, so goes the world. Retailers may love mankind, but they don’t think much of people. And vice versa, I sadly suppose.