Empathy is the Future of Retail

What would the world miss if you didn’t exist?
Posted August 7, 2019

As I continue to travel both internationally and domestically, I’m continually meeting a great deal of very nervous retailers, many worried about the future, all worried about change. To all of them I ask a few simple questions as they face their concerns and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. The questions: As a retailer, what would the world miss if you didn’t exist? What contribution have you made to your community? What impact have you had on the world?

As retail continues on its evolutionary trail, we’re constantly learning new buzzwords. Catchy words that get bandied about such as “authentic,” “community,” “personalization” and of course “experiential.” The list doesn't stop there; it continues with the ever-present “omnichannel” (the word I love to hate), and of course, “curated.”

All of these words are certainly relevant today, but remember, today’s retail model isn’t simply about the distribution of merchandise, but rather about creating brand equity. That and so much more.

The retail engine continues to turn and a new word has been introduced to our vocabulary, a term that is so much more than just a buzzword. It’s empathy. And it’s not a word to be taken lightly, rather it’s an integral part of the life blood of any retail establishment. Retail today isn’t about selling, it’s about giving. When retailers discover a clear path to giving, they will discover an open road to incremental return.

What compels customers to buy into a brand? In the past we may have cited heritage or prestige, and perhaps more recently, instant gratification or entertainment. The starting point for retailers must be the knowledge that the brand contains the trend; the brand is the driver. Retailers must remember their true value. They must understand that true value is not the product they offer, but rather the experience they can provide that is more memorable than the excitement of a purchase. That’s what compels loyalty to a brand.

Retailers must turn their focus to customer empathy to energize a lackluster in-store shopping experience. Success in retail is increasingly about focusing on the customer and their needs, rather than on products. So what exactly is empathy? Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s position and truly identify with their situation. Empathy is understanding your customer and knowing what they’re thinking.

Empathy is a form of understanding that customers truly value, rather than what will sell. Today’s shoppers are not interested in blindly consuming products. Rather, they are passionately seeking out products and brands that elicit change in both themselves and in the world around them. By offering products and philosophies that evoke empathy, brands are more likely to get customers to take notice and take action. They are more likely to share, react and even promote change within their own communities. Make a statement; stand for something. Know who you are, know what you have to say, and say it in a meaningful way. Understand that empathy is the single-most underdeveloped resource by retailers the world over that hope to increase productivity and customer loyalty.

A famous line from the movie “The Godfather” is often referenced in corporate settings:  “This is business. It isn’t personal.” Well retailers, it’s time to make it personal. Make shoppers an offer they can’t refuse. Business involves building. We build networks, we build revenue, profits and moments. It’s important to note that all of these things are dependent on something very fundamental: building human relationships – making it personal. Don’t think about consumers, think about customers. Consumers aren’t just numbers on a page; customers are people. Build relationships with your customers. Understand how they behave as people. Consider how you make them feel.

Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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.