Is Nobody Listening?

Have retailers paid no attention to 20-plus years of the importance of store design?
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Posted June 8, 2017

Sort of buried in the recent coverage of Michael Kors’ wholesale closure of 100 to 125 stores was an acknowledgement from the company that it had “delivered an underwhelming store experience for customers.”

How could any retailer own up to the admission that after 20-plus years of constant drilling on the importance of store plans and designs that met customers’ needs – that “experience” that we now like to talk about?

My God, that’s frustrating!

Had nobody there read an industry magazine, or visited an industry website? Had nobody there attended a presentation at IRDC or GlobalShop or EuroShop? Had nobody there read a Paco Underhill book?

All this time, have we just been talking to ourselves?

How – especially in today’s times, when physical retail is hemorrhaging sales to digital retail – could a retailer admit, in public, that it had not bothered to understand the customer experience?

Michael Kors seems to be a hip, bright organization. What is it exactly that they never “got”?

“I believe they’ve all been stuck in ‘ops’ for so long they’re tied to the old measurement of what the store’s purpose is,” conjectures Lee Peterson, evp of brand, strategy and design at WD Partners (Dublin, Ohio). “They’ve gotten so hung up on measuring store ‘performance’ that they’ve lost the idea of the purpose of the store.

“Is it a fulfillment center? A brand extension? A playground? Or does it even have a purpose at all? In which case, close it!”

Closing stores is a simplistic decision. Making them work takes a bit of imagination. Or at least requires changing your mindset.

Peterson leans toward the “playground” definition, especially for a fashion retailer like Kors.

“To me, first and foremost, that means having amazing staff that engages the customer,” he says, “NOT to sell to them, but to inform them: ‘This is our brand, these are our products, here’s why they’re better than everyone else’s. Here’s how you can buy, if you’d like, and here’s how and when you’ll get it.’ ”

“Look at the Samsung Store in the Meatpacking District,” says Eric Feigenbaum, president of Embrace Design in New York, and VMSD’s Editorial Advisor/New York Editor. “Nothing in the store is for sale, but everything is a branded experience The retailers who don’t think of the store simply as a selling machine, but rather as a social gathering place will succeed.”

As for measuring store “performance” – sales? footfalls? merchandise touches? repeat visits? – Peterson suggests asking Tesla or Amazon how they measure store performance. “They say the store is there to ‘gather information’ – and that’s exactly right!”

Unfortunately, Peterson says, “the typical ceo, who’s probably in his 50s, has spent his entire career perfecting the old ‘ops’ model. Or trying to please the directors, who are in their 60s.

“We’re starting to ask our clients, ‘Are you thinking like Jeff Bezos?’ If not, it may mean going back to the drawing board.”

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.