By The Numbers

The foundation of a successful strategy lies within mathematics
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Posted April 11, 2017

Without the poetry and rhythmic cadence of numbers, and the logic of math, the world would be barren – we would have nothing. Mathematics is the root of everything: Imagine a world without music, art and architecture. Could we count our money, our blessings or our votes? And what of the catenary curves that grace our great bridges, from The Verrazano to The Brooklyn?  Would San Francisco’s Golden Gate still stand? Would we have the Parthenon, and would the caryatids still support the roof of the Erechtheion? Without the Golden Ratio, would we be able to explain the mysteries and wonders of art, science and nature?

Numbers control, influence and measure all. While the lifeblood of retail is centered around communication, the dialogue begins with the analysis of numbers. From sales per square foot to margins, markdowns and demographic analyses, numbers are the tell-all; they are the stepping stones to retail’s promised land: profitability.

It’s all a numbers game, and today’s numbers aren't very encouraging. The number of brick-and-mortar store closings is rising at every turn. But what are the variables in this equation? Take heart, weary retailers, the analysis of retail data is an art and a science. The art is asking the right questions (gathering the appropriate information). The science is the analysis of the responses (interpreting the numbers). Creatives must understand the science of analysis, and accountants must understand the art aspect.

We often speak about holistic design, but it begins with holistic analysis. I’m shocked at the designers who insist that customer feedback is the purview of the marketing department, but heartened by those who understand that pencil can’t meet paper without this information. Glean what you can from the numbers, identify the challenges, and recognize the opportunities. Throughout its history, retail has always been quick to embrace change; to wrap its arms around the latest technologies. From cobblestones to cyberspace, retail has always responded to the wants, needs and desires of the modern-day consumer by understanding their habits and behaviors. Innovation and technology are the drivers of prosperity and profitability. History bears this out, from the invention of the steam engine and the discovery of electricity to the development of the transistor, the laser, the microchip and, of course, the computer.

The biggest change in retail today is understanding that the path to purchase is no longer linear. While the term omnichannel has been bandied about ad nauseam, retailers must reach an epiphany that the brick-and-mortar store is not merely a selling stage. While it may be the theater of new ideas, new concepts and new products, it’s also a showplace for our ever-changing lifestyles. The algebraic mantra use to be sales per square foot as retailers decried the virtues of p-o-s, point of sale. As any hardcore New Yorker would say, “forget about it.” Successful retailers today must focus on p-o-e. No, not Edgar Allen, but rather “point of experience.”

The store is no longer a selling machine, but rather a social gathering place, a desired destination to hang, meet, learn and play. Entering a store should be like entering a fine restaurant, an environment that will take you places, an environment that will move your emotions. The threshold of a store should be a portal to another time, place or mindset – it should be a tactile experience that not even 100 mbps can provide.

What the numbers are telling us is that the consumer is tired of the same old, same old. The retail megaliths who have been using the same dog-eared formulas for generations are the ones who are closing stores. Where is the freshness of format and functionality? Retail is only going away if it doesn't adapt. It’s not brick-and-mortar or digital, it’s brick-and-mortar and digital. Bring the best of online into the store, and bring the best of the store online.

As retail continues on its grand evolutionary path, it’s interesting to note that Amazon, Warby Parker and Bonobos, the leading e-commerce retailers, are all incorporating brick-and-mortar stores as part of their ongoing strategies. Warby Parker executives foresee a possible roster of 800 to 1000 physical locations, while Bonobos envisions 100 stores by 2020. Amazon has opened two bookstores and has three on the drawing board. All three online giants recognize that brick-and-mortar environments will support online sales.

The definition of creative is “relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas.” Retail today is changing exponentially. Change fosters the creative spirit. Build it and they will come. But first, analyze the numbers and understand what today’s consumer wants.

Imagine a world without stores. It’s almost as hard to fathom as a world without music, art and architecture. What would the world be like? What would we miss the most, what would we hope for? That’s what retailers must provide.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.