Stores that add story

For this issue's 'Counterstrategy' (see p. 2) several experts were asked to cite major Canadian fashion retailers who are doing a phenomenal job with their in-store design. What Strategy found is this: despite the fact that other industries - including groceries, books and coffee - have revolutionized in-store marketing practices, the clothing industry, forever on the cusp when it comes to runway trends, is actually behind on this curve.

For this issue’s ‘Counterstrategy’ (see p. 2) several experts were asked to cite major Canadian fashion retailers who are doing a phenomenal job with their in-store design. What Strategy found is this: despite the fact that other industries – including groceries, books and coffee – have revolutionized in-store marketing practices, the clothing industry, forever on the cusp when it comes to runway trends, is actually behind on this curve.

Yet the need for domestic fashion retailers to invest in their store environments is becoming more imperative, not only due to ad clutter, but also because chains can now copy designer lines with ease. Witness the ubiquity of the cargo pant a few years back, or today’s peasant blouse fad. If all shops sell the same stuff, how can any one of them stand out in the mall, or on the fashion strip?

Indeed, some of the bland, larger fashion chains can learn from a few of the little guys when it comes to in-store tactics. For instance, a boutique called Spy Lab on trendy Queen St. West in Toronto is consistent with its espionage concept, not only in the merchandise it offers – little boxy, briefcase-inspired handbags, for instance – but also in its entire setting. Instead of the usual music pumping out of speakers, the shop drives the idea home with video screens, which broadcast secret agent-themed flicks, like the James Bond series.

Another lesson involves merchandising, a point that struck me as I wandered through the aisles at the new Whole Foods Market in Toronto recently: While brilliant creative might entice me to step into a retail space, it’s the ambiance that keeps me there. It’s also the visual presentation that convinces me to pull out my pocketbook and pay for items I really have no use for. Like a four-dollar hemp chapstick, when I already have two small pots of perfectly good lip gloss in my purse.

I also realize that I could happily lollygag in any store, if it’s inviting enough. Whole Foods is not only inviting, but pleasing to the senses. The fruits and veggies are color-coded and stacked in high, neat piles; tantalizing aromas waft from the bread section, where all is baked in the store’s back rooms; and I can treat myself to delicious coffee, roasted on site, before I shop.

There are savvy retailers in the homes sector too. Certainly Williams-Sonoma of San Francisco, which opened its Williams-Sonoma kitchenware and Pottery Barn home furnishings chains in Toronto last year, has mastered its retail ambiance. At Pottery Barn, pretty linens are housed in the bedroom department and shower curtains hang in the bathroom section. It feels like you’re in a cozy home.

Of course, there is a salient quandary – ROI – since the relative ambiance of retail space isn’t known for its measurability. But retail expert Paco Underhill claims that in-store facets can have an impact on a retailer’s bottom line. In his groundbreaking book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, published in 1999, he shares the techniques used by his New York-based firm Envirosell to study shopping patterns, which literally entail following consumers through ‘every nook and cranny from the farthest reach of the parking lot to the deepest penetration of the store itself.’

For example, Underhill discovers that dispersing stacks of shopping baskets through the aisles means a likely increase in sales, since 75% of shoppers who actually pick up a basket head to the cash, compared to only 34% who make a purchase without one. And, he warns, if you’re a drugstore selling concealer cream to older women, it’s foolish to place the product on the bottom shelf where they would have to practically genuflect to retrieve it. The merchandise will move more quickly if it’s more readily accessible.

Apparently, even the little things count. This seems clear to cosmetics marketers, such as The Body Shop, which has relied exclusively on in-store signage and packaging to sell its men’s products and has witnessed sales increases as a result. (For more, see ‘Marketers refine male beauty strategy’, p. 1.)

For its part, Toronto-based Sony of Canada believes in its Concept stores, the first of which was unveiled at Calgary’s Chinook Centre back in 1998. Research indicated that shoppers wanted the opportunity to ‘explore the product hands-on,’ says Gabrielle Holmes, national marketing manager of the company’s retail division.

Sony responded to the findings by carving out interactive areas, such as home-theatre rooms where visitors could experience the Sony system as they would in their own pads. The point of Concept, which has been expanded with new locations in Atlantic Canada and Victoria, B.C., is to urge patrons to ‘touch, feel and play.’ Thus far, the model has been successful, with sales more than doubling in the last five years.

Constructing an enticing milieu worked for a low-cost commodity chain like Starbucks. So why not the Thrifty’s of this world?

With more competition moving in, a retail brand must strive to blow consumers away. Achieving ‘wow factor’ at store level can deepen the impact.

Lisa D’Innocenzo

News Editor