The ICSC Blog

Thinking Outside the Box….

Traditional retailers have faced weighty challenges in recent years. Between the sluggish economy and growth of online shopping, bricks and mortar companies have had to be creative about how to draw new shoppers to their stores, while also encouraging store loyalty among their current customers. A number of innovative strategies have been in the news, recently, and were part of the program offerings at the NRF’s Big Show in New York, this week. Three such ideas are diversifying store offerings, developing experiential shopping experiences, and employing Pop up stores.

Earlier this month American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” program focused on the response of some college bookstores to the competition posed by online sellers like Amazon. For those of us of a certain vintage, we remember the biannual trip to the university store to pick up text for our new classes. But why would a student these days go to the trouble? Marketplace reporter Jennifer Collins explains that savvy college stores have remade themselves, morphing from a musty bookstore to a one-stop-shopping service center for all sorts of things students might need or want. At the University of California San Diego, one of the flagship schools of the prestigious UC system, the college bookstore doesn’t even call itself a bookstore anymore. While they still offer texts, the store looks more like a student union—with restaurants, cosmetic counters, an ATT store, and services such as dry cleaning. They have remained viable, but calibrating the preferences and sensibilities of college students.

At a panel on “The Future of the Shopping Center” at the recent NRF meeting in New York, industry luminaries Mary Lou Fiala, former President and COO of Regency Centers, former ICSC Chairman, and long-time retail executive, and Maxine Clark, Founder of the wildly successful Build-a-Bear Company, underscored the experiential nature of shopping. Ms. Fiala reminded the audience that, while people remained pressed for time to shop, when they did venture into stores, they wanted to enjoy the process. She pointed to the Apple stores as places that combined so many elements that are important to buyers. The stores are visually pleasing and focus on superb customer service—often at no charge. With continuing educational offerings for their products, Apple is able to draw in their consumers again and again. And once in the store, adults can be a captivated by Apple’s newest gizmos, while their kids are safely at arm’s length, playing with age-appropriate educational games.

The Build-a-Bear Workshop is a perennial favorite among those who analyze top-flight shopping experiences. No doubt the company has interesting, well-crafted products, but it is the family experience of creating a one of a kind children’s bear that makes a memory, not just a transaction. And the sale doesn’t end when the consumer walks out the door. By harnessing technology and building a community of bear owners (I am sure Maxine has clever term for those customers who have adopted bears….she is, after all, the Chief Executive Bear), she ensures brand loyalty and customers who will return again and again.

Finally, the proliferation of the Pop up stores shows that, smart business people are “thinking outside the box,” literally! The variety of Pop up opportunities is limited only by the imagination. For instance, during New York City’s famed fashion week, QVC (the television shopping network), opened a jointly sponsored Pop up store in the Rockefeller Center complex, just a half-block from ICSC’s Manhattan headquarters. Pop up stores can be connected with holidays (Halloween Pop up stores are commonplace these days, for instance), product launches such as Target’s unveiling of the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi’s budget conscience product line for the jumbo retailer, or any other appropriate PR related initiative. Alternatively, there are plenty of examples, in emerging markets, where Pop up stores offer a unique option to any cash-strapped retailer that simply doesn’t have the resources to open a traditional storefront.

So while regular retailers will continue to encounter obstacles to doing business as usual, these same “problems” lead to fascinating developments, that make the shopping experience more creative and enjoyable. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention!

Sarah Ritchie
ICSC Leadership Development Team

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