What’s in store across the border?

Agency, clients charter a bus to Buffalo to check out the U.S. retail scene

We have heard our designers, managers and clients all say it, and for good reason. There are many unique marketing insights to see in Buffalo, N.Y. simply because it is a part of the United States. From products to P-O-P to retail design, there is a lot to learn.

In late June we chartered a bus, loaded it with clients, staff and lots of food, then headed for the border. Our destination – retailers in the area surrounding suburban Cheektowaga’s Walden Galleria Mall. On the way down, we distributed extensive background material to help everyone understand the nuances of each retailer to be visited. It was a great tool to help us get into the appropriate frame of mind.

The first store was Target, one of the few discount retailers that continues to open stores despite the dominance of mighty Wal-Mart. With approximately a third of the revenue of Wal-Mart, Target is very different from other discount stores. The environment is simple, with a fun environment created by leveraging bright colours and dimensional graphics.

The walls are covered with pegboard that is wallpapered with dynamic images appropriate to each category. For example, in the beach toys section, an illustration of clouds covers the pegboard wall of pool noodles and lifejackets. Such a simple idea, yet very effective.

The Michael Graves collection of housewares is a real draw. As one of America’s leading architect/designers, Michael Graves has designed thousands of products for luxury brands including the famous Alessi kettle. His work for Target in the creation of over 600 products, available exclusively at this retailer, has allowed consumers access to entry-level luxury products.

Also of interest are nationally branded products that have a strong element of Target branding. In the fan zone of the hardware section, for example, product packaging is dictated by the retailer and has a consistent look between segments. Specifically, all portable fans are packaged in the same blue box. Only the close-cropped product photo and the restrained white-type brand name in the bottom left corner differentiates the SKUs.

Effectively, this means that Black & Decker gets the same visual real estate as Whirlwind and cannot use its distinctive orange and back colours.

In a time when marketers are spending small fortunes on brand awareness, it would certainly be interesting to hear their comments on this retailer dictating their national brands’ presence in-store and on-pack.

At grocery chain Wegmans, we found a treasure-trove of innovative packaging and P-O-P, demonstrating astute insight into youth marketing. Poweraid enlisted the infamous anti-hero, Mr. Smith from The Matrix, as its spokesperson in P-O-P that covers the beverage section.

Just as in our market, The Hulk is everywhere and in everything. For example, one national brand is selling green, chocolate-flavoured milk syrup. Flutie Flakes have been replaced by Hulk cereal as the hot breakfast item.

There’s an energy drink can that looks like a bullet, and Red Dog beer has designed its packaging so that its six-packs are merchandised with the three-tin-wide face showing. This creates great brand massing you can’t help but look at.

At Galyan’s you see great retail theatre. With just over 30 stores, this sporting-goods chain has become the visual brand anchor for the once mighty Walden Galleria Mall. No small feat when you consider that JCPenney and Sears command larger footprints. The product diversity offered is amazing. This store has a full yoga department two floors down from a major hunting section where shotgun shells are stacked like pop at a grocery store.

In JCPenney, a line of pots and pans from TV chef Emeril dominates the department with bright yellow-and-green boxes in a sea of white and gray. Clothing departments feature large-scale photography, branded and supplied by manufacturers. Clearly this retailer has built its product offerings and environment around national brands and the support material they generate.

There are huge benefits to getting out into the world and seeing what’s new. Sharing these experiences with clients and prospects means you can develop ideas further ahead on the curve. So step out of your day-to-day routine. A fresh perspective is only a bus ride away.

Bruce Smith is director, business planning at Brandid, a Toronto brand consulting and design studio with extensive expertise in brand strategy and tactics, corporate communications, brand identity and naming, packaging, point of purchase and retail environment design.