Christian Davies shares the absolute, irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible future of retail
Posted October 23, 2007

It’s that time of year again, folks. The nights are growing longer, the days colder and our thoughts are starting to shift toward next year. For me, 2007 – to borrow from the parlance of my adopted home – was a doozy. Because this year – maybe, just maybe – I got a glimpse of the future.

I’m not talking about the palm reading I got in Atlantic City in August (where my “psychic” guaranteed me health and happiness while neglecting to warn me of impending food poisoning from a boardwalk hot dog). It’s about the first glimmerings of a future for our retail world, a grass-roots, word-of-mouth, seemingly organic movement that I’ve seen springing up from Delhi to Sao Paolo and from London to Seattle – 2007 was the year that retail dared to care.

It began with a big-box store conceived, planned and executed to give more back to the local landscape than its construction took out. You know how these stores usually land in your ’hood, like an open-face coal mine framing an architectural slab with all the presence and edifice of a Frigidaire taking a nap. But this was different, from rainwater run-offs to elegant plantings and a bike path. What was all this about? Was it because they were Swedish?

A few weeks later, back in the U.K., I saw the first 40 feet of a Tesco parking lot designated for families with children and senior citizens. Inside the store, I picked up a paper and read an update on KFC’s war against the evils of trans fats. By the end of the week, a British grocery store had joined a campaign to improve nutrition in schools. Something was afoot.

Back stateside, in the following months, I saw retail corporations and brands moving away from mere celebrity associations and aligning themselves with individuals who actually make a difference. And not in some chest-thumping, self-congratulatory way, but because it’s the right thing to do. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was actually interested in something Bono had to say – even to the point of seriously considering owning a satin finish, bright red phone. OK, semi-seriously.

Come summertime, I ran across Nau, an apparel start-up based in the Pacific Northwest. It donated a percentage of every buck I gave them to a charity I got to choose. The products I bought were 100 percent sustainable and the store employees encouraged me to shop online simply because it’s better for the earth if they don’t have to build any more stores. Amazing, though treasonous in our industry.

In the fall, I saw sales associates at Fresh Market going the extra mile time and time again, from helping customers who were lost, confused or overwhelmed to hauling their purchases out into the parking lot. Without being asked. Last month, the manager ran a grill out in the parking lot to support juvenile diabetes. And he still found the time to ask me how my trip to the store was.

In 2007 – perhaps because of the power of the bloggerati – I saw retailers not just listen to what their consumers were telling them, but actually change their policies, operations and even their corporate leaders. I’m not naming names, but the best thing about this very public trend is that we all know who they are.

I saw mega-corporations start to care about the communities they’re in, shifting the emphasis from national to local and from faceless to personable in ways that were truly meaningful and, in some cases, inspirational. Like the category killer that offers to help dispose of the stuff it sells when it’s ready to be trashed. Thanks for that, Best Buy.

Imagine a future where retail cares. No hidden charges, no small print, no oily salespeople, an end to the disingenuous drivel of something-for-nothing in-store promotions. In this world, your gas station won’t try and con you into super premium by placing that button directly over the pump where it’s easier and more convenient to accidentally hit. Your bank won’t try to sell you a fraudulent mortgage wrapped in the sweet-smelling veneer of “no money down.” And your kids’ toys won’t come in flavors like “luscious lead paint” just so someone can satisfy a shareholder’s thirst for an improved bottom line.

The retail brands leading the pack in this future will be the ones caring the most. And we can all build this future by starting to shop with them today.

I’m going to take the high ground here and suggest that the reason we seem to be heading down this path is not just because of the dollar at the end of it. I hope it’s because the people running these companies and the people who work for them actually feel good when they make a difference. And that an industry like ours, whose scale and influence can truly have an impact, has awakened to the fact that it’s a part of something real here.

At the end of the summer, a retailer actually returned money to me after it realized it had overcharged me – even though I hadn’t noticed. Better still, the next week my local coffee shop didn’t charge me for my daily latte. And I didn’t even have to sign up for anything. Why? Just because.

Christian Davies is vp and managing creative director of the specialty brands studio at FRCH Design Worldwide (Cincinnati). He dedicates this article to the legacy of Anita Roddick, perhaps the first of us dogs who connected the dots and made a difference.

photo: Brandon Page, FRCH Design Worldwide, Cincinnati