Recently I was hoofing it across Manhattan’s 8th Street to get my customary “trade show” haircut when it struck me how this retail strip has changed. This east-west street that traverses Greenwich Village used to be lined with numerous independent shoe stores. The smell of leather would waft outside, triggering a Pavlov dog-like response that enticed shoppers into stores where they could then rub the rich leathers between their fingers while a salesperson serviced any requests. With hundreds of styles to peruse, the street presented a full-on sensory shopping experience and, not surprisingly, it was one of the top places to go shoe shopping in New York.
Not any more. Nearly all of those stores are gone. Their transformations complete with what appears to be a glut of fast food, frozen yogurt and cupcake shops. When I came across a recently deceased shoe store—the vacant space’s slat wall looking like skeletal remains—it hit me how limited in scope it seemed compared to today’s superstores, Internet behemoths and trendy flash-sale sites. That tiny and tired format juxtaposed against the massive selection many now showcase—all at the click of a mouse, open 24-7 and enticed by low prices, tax-free shopping and next-day shipping—and is it any wonder consumers are buying shoes elsewhere? It’s a shift made even more attractive thanks to many brick-and-mortar retailers having stripped away the sensory advantages they hold over retailers via less service (if any), a narrow selection, and a setting that blurs from one store into the next and sparks little intrigue from consumers. The pervasive lack of service, in particular, has conditioned many consumers to not expect it and, in many cases, not even want it because it’s often unhelpful and even rude. Can you really blame consumers for preferring the ease, affordability and relative immediacy of online shopping in comparison?
Sadly, it’s as if a lot of traditional retailers have tossed aside the ace up their sleeve: the ability to engage, entice and entertain all of a customer’s senses. You’ve got all five at your disposal, so why not engage the ones that the Internet can’t? Why not take that human quotient and turn it into a positive instead of being the reason people flee a store in disgust? It’s a copout to say it can’t be done or, worse, it’s admitting defeat. Besides, you’ve already invested heavily in employee salaries and benefits so you might try and get some return for it.
The fact is most consumers still love to shop and are hungry for information. So many are in stores looking, touching and trying on styles, yet a rising number are then buying it online. It’s been dubbed “showrooming” and it was one of the hot-button issues discussed at last month’s USRA conference in Las Vegas. While there will always be those deal-mongers who will buy elsewhere for even a few pennies less, there’s little excuse to lose the vast majority of customers who have already made the effort to visit your store. You have to hook them there or offer the follow-up capabilities to not lose that sale.
Call me delusional, but I believe if a customer is treated and serviced courteously, fairly and sincerely—that it comes across that their business is truly meaningful to that proprietor—then most will reward that effort with their business. Even if the particular style or size is not immediately available, a retailer that earns the trust and respect of its customers should be able to sell them another option or assure that the requested item is in their hands within the time frame an Internet dealer might deliver it.
If you own a physical store, how can you not embrace that approach? I’ve been encouraged of late to see several traditional retailers—old stalwarts, in fact—do exactly that: embrace their senses. Macy’s new super shoe department in its flagship—dubbed “the world’s largest women’s shoe department”—surely rivals the selection of many Internet dealers. Not only that, the setting is beyond plush, complete with the sweet smells and tastes of a champagne and chocolate bar. It also features “runners” fetching styles for sales associates who operate handheld devices to accommodate busy shoppers. Similarly, Saks is expanding upon its 10022-SHOE concept in its flagship and is in the process of rolling it out to 15 stores around the country. One of the new touches is a camera pointed at customer’s shoes that will then display the image on a screen. And Barneys New York has expanded its designer offerings to include up-and-comers to appeal to its shoes-obsessed clientele, as well as to distinguish itself further from the competition.
The overall point is it can, and is, being done because consumers crave and reward such interactive, informative and imaginative shopping experiences. It’s an emotional escape and experience that simply can’t be replicated on a screen. And it can also go way beyond just the need to shop for new shoes. It can amount to a fun afternoon, perhaps spent with family or friends, as opposed to just sitting alone and going click, click, click… Talk about dulling the senses.