Originally published in Atlanta Business Chronicle.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” is upon us. The winds keep shifting and wildfires rage while retailers scramble to remain relevant and adapt to fast-changing consumer expectations. As retailers are slipping away in the charred wasteland of their own making, brands are now beginning to embrace their role in the re-invention of the shopping experience.
The Retail Apocalypse is fertile ground for new forward thinking, omni-channel brands to take hold. Rather than an end of days, it’s part of the natural cycle that has occurred many times before – remember neighborhood general stores?
For years the forestry service aggressively controlled wildfires in some of the last groves of Giant Sequoia trees to save them from extinction, only to see the tree groves suffer and fail to produce new growth.
Scientists later discovered Sequoia trees depend on wildfire to thrive. Fire opens the waxy cones, burns away detritus to expose the soil and allows light to filter to the forest floor, giving seedlings an opportunity to establish themselves. These destructive forces are needed from time to time for a healthy ecosystem.
When an industry shifts, some will be burnt but opportunities for new ideas will sprout and thrive. As overbuilt retail space right-sizes, sluggish retailers scramble to adapt, and Amazon’s relentless march continues to lay waste to retailers, a new shopping landscape is taking root.
How can manufacturers’ brands embrace the retail revolution and new shopper mindset? Brands supporting (or even driving) the evolution of retail is not only smart business, it’s a matter of survival.
Started in the 60s and coveted by Southern California surfers, Birdwell Beach Britches was known for high-quality board shorts. But the brand failed to adapt and was flailing. In 2016 new ownership took over the surf-shop-distributed brand, added direct-to-consumer distribution and modernized its social media efforts. They took full control of the sales funnel. Now the brand sells direct via its e-commerce website, allowing personalization and a high-touch experience that still retains the authentic vibe of the brand. Owning everything from upper funnel awareness generation to transactions, the unboxing experience and customer care provides total control over the customer’s brand experience. The brand team now uses a treasure trove of customer data to refine the product offering, online targeting and overall relationship with its customers. The New York Times reports the brand’s revenues and profits have skyrocketed under the new approach.
Connecting online to the offline shopping experience is critical to capturing today’s consumer. Have you ever stood in the wine section of your local package store and felt overwhelmed by the selection? Treasury Wine Estate has developed “living wine labels” across several of its wine brands to engage shoppers and inform purchase decisions. The company’s augmented reality app brings each label to life on the shelf providing entertaining and informative experiences. In the case of their Walking Dead brand of wine, zombies emerge from the bottle and do battle, while others provide the vintner’s insights and tasting notes. The winemaker recently reported 131 percent year-over-year sales growth for their 19 Crimes AR-enhanced brand.
While not an entirely new concept, single-brand stores have seen a resurgence as well. These stores act as brand experience boutiques to engage with customers directly and provide insights into shopping behavior. Samsung’s store in the NY’s Meat Packing district features an immersive tech experience including VR rides, concerts and digital vending machines dispensing Samsung branded souvenirs. And the branded Lego Discovery Centers feel more like a theme park than a retail experience – including the admission price. Model building classes, rides, and dining are all there to engage and entertain. But don’t kid yourself, the “gift shops” at the Discovery Centers are full-on retail experiences, even offering exclusive Lego sets only available in store.
As bricks and mortar retailers scramble to meet the shopper, the next generation of brands will win by putting it all together – a true interconnected and cohesive omni-channel brand experience. The firestorm is helping brands strip away the layer insulation, get closer and re-establish relationships with their customers.
So, while the closing of 9,000 retail stores in 2017 was painful and disruptive for many, this is a reckoning for taking eyes off the consumers. For being bloated and sluggish and for forgetting who we’re here to serve — I say let the retail apocalypse wildfires burn, baby, burn!