This post is a companion to A Cure for What Ails Big RetailGetting Experiential Retail Right

If you love a good experiment, as I do, the last few months in retail should have made you pretty happy. Having now cycled through the classic grief-response phases of Denial (it can’t happen to me); Anger (can’t we put Amazon out of business); Bargaining (continuous discounting + perhaps a new look); and Depression (dithering, procrastination and turning to the usual drugs, like financial engineering); a growing chunk of the retail world has finally reached some sort of Acceptance.

But acceptance of what? That one should chuck it all in and sell on Amazon? No. Acceptance of an existential question: what, exactly, is the purpose of a store in the 21st century? Confusion reigns: even Walmart has dropped the word “Stores” as part of its name.

Whatever we call it, it is, of course, about the experience, the purpose of of which is to build emotional bonds with the customer so they will buy products. And the most important way to do that is by redefining the store as a place to deliver service.

Ah, service, the overlooked, quiet, sensible, un-sexy sister to the more conventionally beautiful, buzzed-about entertainment/design/promotional/tech side of retailing. And yet, as every reader of Jane Austen knows, it’s that quiet sister who saves the day.

Most retailers, of course, offer services. But what I’m talking about is broader notion of service, which starts with a strategic understanding of what your customer needs and craves, and is then fulfilled in a way that is consistent with your brand, your story, your personality.

Service needs to be front and center of the retail revolution. And yet … it isn’t. 

Crawl: Just the basicsIn one of my early drafts of this piece, I neglected this one because it’s so obvious. But it shouldn’t be. A basic greeting with a smile; “how can I help you”; “sure, let me take care of that for you”; “goodbye and see you soon,” etc. … are missing in the large majority of stores, let alone anything more high touch. Large chains claim to invest heavily in customer service training. It’s been wasted.

Poor customer service in physical retail is Amazon’s best friend.

Yes, we know it’s hard. No, service doesn’t scale. And you’re right, service is not really considered a worthy calling in America; and yes, it’s incredibly tough to find great customer service staff when you’re paying minimum wage. But take a page from Cole Hardware, my local Ace Hardware store. God knows it ain’t pretty, but there are pleasant greeters, easy-to-find, knowledgeable help who can explain to me in MY language what I need to get and how to use it to fix my problem. And popcorn to stave off the hangries.

Walk: Amping up Convenience. This is where the more nimble retailers and the DTCs-now-branching-into-retail have focused.   Buy online-pick up in store/ order online from the store; delivery services; easy buying – perhaps without even having to deal with a real live human, if that’s the customer’s yen. (Though wouldn’t it be wonderful if your staff is so smart, engaging, and efficient that people would rather engage with them, instead of a scanner?)

This all may be a foundational but retailers still struggle with this one. SAD, as our Tweeter-in-Chief would opine.

Walk Faster:  Merchandising is a service, not just a way of displaying things so you’ll buy them. Merchandising is also about helping consumers make more informed choices, learn about the product (where, how made, design features, sustainability, how to use and care for it, how to dispose of/recycle it, etc.) This is one of those fine balances between sales staff, signage, and display tech. And it’s pretty bad throughout retail. Just try finding out the country of origin of a product in most stores.

Run. Become a service brand. This is where the leaders are, with different riffs on what service means.

Integrate the product with the service. Stores that are about customization and strict curation have always known this. Established and new Saville Row-type stores, obviously, have the edge here. But so do stores that feature customization and co-designing – sneaker stores like Converse and Nike come to mind. So does Warby Parker, with its notion of offering eye exams in its stores (albeit via a clever piece of tech).

The master of service integration is Apple. Integration is part of its DNA: they were, after all the first to truly integrate hardware and software.  In a much derided move, (and long before Walmart did so) Apple began referring to its stores as “town squares” and “locations”. I snarked too. But now I get it. The Apple stores are chill, airy temples of cool where the architecture almost disappears; filled with geniuses; a focus on help not sales; lots of inspiration from people doing things with all their Apple toys; interaction between customers; and an almost invisible purchase experience.  They’re places where everything feels that it’s going to be OK, and your universe suddenly feels lighter, bigger, better. Like a monochrome, grown-up Disneyland.

Compare and contrast, please, with the Amazon store, which has succeeded perfectly in translating its online brand offline: the local Amazon store is an anarchic, unattractive online experience that’s curiously both claustrophobic and bewilderingly expansive. The only difference: there are lines of people waiting to check out.

Another alternative: tap into the eco-system for your product.  Perfect and intriguing example: Nordstrom Local. If your primary product is clothing, Nordstrom reasoned, then service is also about delivering all the flanking services: personal shopping, tailoring, styling, accessorizing, cleaning and repair, wardrobe management.  The store is a place to access these services, (along with a juice, latte, wine, and a manicure) and is a showroom only: no grab and go. Like Apple, the idea is more cool club and oasis more than store, a place for locals to drop in, chill out and experience services you hopefully won’t be able to live without.

This is all an experiment, of course, and it needs to be given time. But it feels right, both because of its content, but also because it feels so consistent with the Nordstrom brand. The key will be a) driving revenue for the company as a whole and b) delivering great service, and c) staying consistent with the vision.

Just consider the applications for this kind of thinking, including my beloved Cole Hardware.

And this is not going to be the right model for all retailers: Macy’s probably shouldn’t try this.

The key to it all: people.  The concept of “associate” needs to be expanded (not just in a title). It cannot be the texting, Snapchatting, gum-snappers of today. And traditional retail managers focused on units sold and overtime avoided are not the ones to inspire and lead this new cohort.

The model of hiring minimum wage retail staff for these experiential, high-touch service roles won’t work without far better, more rigorous hiring and training.

The store team will need to have a team that has the high touch care orientation,  thoughtfulness and resourcefulness of a luxury hotel concierge. Someone also needs to be an event programmer with a keen appreciation of the brand, a deep understanding of what’s going on in their communities, a fine appreciation of who their customers are and how to bring the brand to life in a way that’s useful and compelling to customers. Other skills? Teaching and educating – not a bad side hustle for worthy schoolteachers.

Managers should not be spending their time myopically focused on inventory management, data analysis, or the wrangling of sullen teens. They need to play the role of host: someone who treats the party as their own, empowering staff, mixing the guests, taking care of the wallflowers, turning down the music, fixing problems, and calling a Lyft when that guest can’t get home on their own steam.

For the right person, working in a store could become an interesting and rich alternative to something more “professional”. For customers, there would be a reason to go to a “store”. But for retailers, it calls for a whole new range of skills and sensibilities. In fact…

And moving beyond question of whether the word “store” is an apt one, should we even call it retail anymore?