Getting Retail Right in Charlotte, NC

Insights from local retailers proves that the personal touch is needed to thrive
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Posted June 4, 2018

As I acclimate to my new home town of Charlotte, N.C., I’m constantly combing through local newsfeeds on what is happening here each weekend. One weekend back in March, I found what promised to be a very interesting event: #REPURPOSEDCLT.  

Billed as an “upcycled” fashion show, #REPURPOSEDCLT is put together by the City of Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services to draw attention to how much waste goes to the landfills annually. Local and regional designers participate, from veteran designers to stylists and DIY fans, and the fashions on the runway are the result of creative repurposing of discarded clothing.

The Saturday night event was quite energized with a live auction component. The pieces were really intriguing, but the inspiration I took away from it was not only for my next DIY project, but for what became an event hosted by the newly formed Charlotte City Center Chapter of the Retail Design Institute. The evening’s standout favorites, if the live auction was to be an indicator, were the pieces by Tamara Shanell (TS) of T-Shanell.  She seemed to be quite well known to the local audience, and it got the wheels in my brain turning.

On my way home from the event, I passed a large, 27,000-square-foot standalone retail store on Wilkinson Boulevard called Blackstone Shooting Sports, owned and operated by a former transactional business attorney, Taylor Hayden (TH). The building looked fairly new, and as I drove by it I realized there were several components to it: retail, a café and a shooting range. The space was brightly lit and looked well put together. The wheels in my brain started moving faster.

The next morning, being a Sunday, I set out on a reconnaissance mission of a different sort. Combination quest for sorely needed caffeine and discovery of retail unknown, I ventured the few blocks from my apartment to my destination: a coffee shop of the most unusual kind.

Where most coffee shops sport a uniform of reclaimed wood, white subway tile and large expanses of open storefront exposing lounge seating, this little building was painted black, as were its windows, and the messaging on it was rather cryptic. A poem was painted on one side of the building and a charging station for electric cars was on the other. In preparation for this exploration, I had shared with our Office Manager on the preceding Friday that I was going to check this place out over the weekend, giving her the exact location. I told her that if I didn’t show up on Monday, that they should start the search for me there as my last known whereabouts. As I approached it however, I saw there was a large brick planter engaging the storefront that had real flowers in it. How scary can a place be if it has real flowers as part of its storefront? In I went. And from that experience, I knew I had to meet the owner, Caleb Clark (CC).

What starting forming in my head was that I needed to get these guys together, and we need to talk about retail in Charlotte. Over the course of my brief time here, we had already engaged in conversations with a local business owner, Victoria Zabel (VZ). She owns what can be best described as a baby version of Eataly at the 7th Street Public Market in Uptown Charlotte. Now solidly entrenched in the brick and mortar reality of retail, she started her business as an importer, and has successfully combined wholesale, retail and online. And she became the last piece of the panel puzzle.

The idea for the event wrapped around “New Models for Retail”, and who better to speak about that than Megan Berry (MB). Megan Berry is the Founder and CEO of by REVEAL, a tech-enabled retail platform that is a deployable physical space of approximately 250 square feet with the ultimate in location flexibility. Megan kicked off our event with a keynote that focused in on key themes in retail today:

  • the demand for flexibility of location and format
  • the need to test and try with limited exposure – be it location, product, technology demographic, etc.
  • the importance of authenticity and storytelling
  • the power of data

We then turned to our panel and asked a few pointed questions about how they address retail in this hyper competitive landscape.

Current conversations with global retailers are focused on being a brand, not a store, and engaging with the consumer wherever they are. Let’s talk about physical space.

CC: He designed the coffee shop space to expand for events from its everyday mode of 312 square-feet to 1700 square-feet, allowing it to transform from coffee shop to event space. He uses this additional space as workspace for his apparel businesses. He has moved to custom pattern printing on demand to eliminating the need for back stock.

TS: She developed dual strategies of a traditional boutique for her ready-to-wear line, and a separate dedicated space for support of her online custom business. The latter is a T-Shanell showroom, where her clients are able to browse her various collections or pick out fabrics for custom pieces. She is planning to offer workshops there to help aspiring young designers hone their craft.

VZ: She shared that she takes advantage of being located in a public market, its shared synergies around programming and its accessibility as a tourist destination.

 

Piggy backing on this, we talked about developing online businesses, synergies of retail vs wholesale, and the advantages of physical retail presence.

VZ: She developed and expanded into a blended concept (prepared/cooked food/food stuffs) over years, moving from being an importer, through wholesale, to retail and then adding online, as she focused on offering a 360 degree experience to her customers.

TS: She started in retail twenty years ago and has evolved to mostly online over the past ten years (10% boutique/90% online). She shared that her boutique is a different clientele, more skewed toward ready-to-wear, and that she opened a separate location to service the demand of online sales (manufacturing/ distribution/ shipping) since the online offering is primarily custom.

TH: He saw an underserved market, used himself as the customer model, and developed a blended concept to incorporate both retail and activity-based experiences.

 

On Authenticity:

VZ: She discussed the fact that “authenticity” has become an overused term - almost cliché - and shared insights about keying into heritage and product sourcing, earning and building trust with your customer base (loyalty through product quality), and the art of storytelling through product presentation.

CC: Utilization of laser focused product curation can be viewed as authenticity, as can incorporation of product from local craftsman. Storytelling can happen through social media, the design of the environment, and the product itself.

TS: She created a non-profit mentorship organization, She is Magik, that’s aim is to encourage and support homeless single mothers through positive encouragement, community building and programs geared toward a healthy lifestyle. She will be having an eexhibit at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte, in October, to showcase this organization and its mission, and share the beautiful handmade products made but the women it supports.

 

On Staff Training and Customer Service:

TH: They found that the gun/shooting industry in particular is problematic if you hire for passion, so they set down on paper their corporate values and hired those that aligned with them, became guest centric, focused on knowledge without condescension. They incentivize staff organically by encouraging them to build a career at Blackstone. They’ve found that the sales associates tend to be like-minded, become friends and hang out together outside of work, fostering a very close collegial atmosphere.

CC: The service model is one devoid of negative attitude (not highbrow). The staff is encouraged to be extremely friendly to overcome the intimidation factor of the environment’s unique design.

 

On Customer Engagement:

TH: After an examination of benefits versus perks, they have moved to a membership model. They discovered that they have a split demographic: the older who shop and shoot, and the younger who mostly shoot. The customers like belonging to a community; they were selling 200 memberships but losing 125-150 per month, but it devolved into a discount club. They hired a Guest Experience Manager to ensure customer advocacy, given a budget for delighting customers (not just members), and regularly host member appreciation parties (poker nights).

CC: They also established a membership model, purchase of a special iconic pin (in lieu of membership card) to gain membership with privileges like drink discounts, 10 percent off the entire store on Sundays (now 3rd busiest day), access to members only events. He talked about how it costs more to acquire customers than retain, so owning mistakes and going beyond expectations to rectify, plus hand written thank you notes with all shipments go a long way to foster loyalty.

VZ: She hosts special events and dinners based on regions of Italy and seasonality.

 

On Social Media:

CC: Use of local influencers for marketing (criteria: +50K followers, some paid/some not, organic advocacy a must, can flop based on influencer antics), has built influencer kits much like beauty brands, stopped using Facebook because they saw a steady decline, uses Instagram in a very focused language of their own (“maintain the mystery”), and now strictly uses Stories. He feels like there is now a higher level of engagement because people are asking questions.

TS: She is directing people to her site through social media/influencers/celebrities/shows, but she is sensitive about celebrity engagement and how it affects her brand as a fashion designer with a namesake line.

TH: He uses Facebook (older demographic) plus Instagram and Snapchat (younger professionals/ range users). He also uses Facebook Forum for the community.

VZ: She utilizes email newsletters, and occasionally uses Instagram stories to feature special events.

 

Data Mining

VZ: She still uses intuition and observation based on sales data at the market, and online sales allows for capture of more specific info (gender, etc).

CC: He is trying to discern patterns utilizing in store sales data, but feels like they can track influencer effects and online data more easily to pivot those businesses.

TH: Despite data rich given product category requirements (ID, etc), deriving intel from data is currently limited by their current POS system (leveraging has been challenging). He advocated research into back end systems prior to purchasing to maximize what data can be yielded and decoded. They do have in-store heat mapping information and have developed customer personas to guide customer experiences.

 

Digital Integration

MB: She shared how brands are using the Reveal to experiment with apps for customer engagement.

CC: He looked at using “decorative digital” in store and found that while it looked cool but it didn’t feel right so he ultimately did not install it.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s Charlotte, N.C., office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.