As a longtime educator with a keen interest in retail’s ever-changing, and at times tumultuous history, I have often cited the philosophies of the merchant princes of a century ago: names such as John Wanamaker, Harry Gordon Selfridge and J.C. Penney, along with designers Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes. They spoke about the elements of enticement including art, theater and a welcoming environment. Loewy in particular spoke about the clarity of design, “Simplicity is the deciding factor in the aesthetic equation.” While these concepts and theories of customer attraction may seem antiquated in this age of technology and a gripping pandemic, their messages ring true today.
Retail has always adapted to the technological advances of the day, as well as the social and economic challenges, that have influenced societal behavior. Impactful events are generational and have long-lasting and sometimes profound effects on the people who lived through them. We must consider the psychological effect of such events. People who grew up during the Great Depression have different values, inclinations and dispositions than those who did not, and those who lived through the trials and challenges of the Vietnam War have a different perspective than those who came after. With this understanding, it is clear that going forward, the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-lasting effect on the psychological well-being of people around the globe. In the coming months, we will clearly see some of the long-term effects and resultant changes in society.
In order to move forward, retailers must begin by monitoring and adapting to the needs that people have today and will have tomorrow. They must be aware of what’s happening across the world. This is the new normal, and we must accept it, embrace it and work with it. We all have to operate in this new environment, and we all must do the right thing even when it’s difficult. And in doing so, retailers must always remember that a commitment to safety is a brand attribute. Recognize that we are all working toward a common cause: to mitigate, contain and resume. The pandemic has amplified our indiscretions, injustices and wasteful ways.
We all have a responsibility to stand up to injustice and all of the other ills that we have ignored for far too long. And while our economy, driven by robust retail, strives to be great once again, it’s important to note that we shouldn't merely endeavor to be great, but also to be good. In times of adversity, values matter. While our missteps are innumerable, they are not unique to us. What is unique is our lack of acknowledgment. It’s time to listen with a different set of ears.
While the future is unpredictable, and will be unpredictable for some time to come, we must not wait for it to come to us, rather we must prepare, and then adapt for any eventuality. And we can do that by harkening back to the history books and learning how the great merchant princes related to the concerns, fears and aspirations of the community at large.
The future vision of a successful retail format is based on providing great experiences, innovation and digital engagement, all in a safe and comfortable environment. When developing a retail strategy, we must pay attention to long-term consumer shifts that will change all of us forever. They will reshape the way we live, the way we think, and yes, the way we shop. In these most challenging days, consumers seek uplifting experiences. Providing comfort and good spirited upbeat experiences matter, they build trust. And going forward, trust will be a product offering.
It’s interesting to note that our public health system has made significant adjustments and improvements while mired in the throes of the pandemic. By adapting to our present reality, we are now more prepared than ever before to deal with future widespread health emergencies. Analogously, retailers should be learning and adjusting as well to create shopping interactions that are appropriate to this generational crisis and beyond.
In my role as teacher and lecturer, I’ve told students and retailers alike, that e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores must be spiritually united; a visit to the website should be akin to a walk through the store. That understanding is more relevant today than ever before. The pandemic has clearly accelerated e-commerce and elevated it to the backbone of business. In this environment, and with the tools available, retailers have an obligation to come to the aid of an ailing community. They have to do their part to ameliorate the prevailing sadness and depression that people are feeling with empathy and true human connections. In uncertain times, people want a place to feel good. We miss the places we usually go to. Retailers can provide virtual experiences that cross the abyss of isolation. Seize the moment by providing an online community for people who are longing to interact. We all miss physical interactions, and it’s not just the shopping, the art, the theater or the stadium, it’s the people. Retailers now have the opportunity and the responsibility to provide virtual experiences that will sooth the soul while promoting the safe return to brick and mortar experiences that will further evoke feelings, move emotions and foster brand loyalty.
And this is where the teachings of the early merchant princes come to light. They all spoke of attractions such as art, advertising and architecture; the three A’s of enticement. John Wanamaker said, “Have no impediments [in terms of architecture] for customers to enter your store.” Virtual experiences should be as welcoming as physical experiences. Analogous to the simplicity of a Raymond Loewy show window created for Macy’s back in the day, is the simplicity of your online platform. An ease of connection and entry is defined by a clean simplicity of navigation.
But remember, when inviting people into your virtual world, it’s not enough to put your presence out there in cyberspace and simply open your doors or portals. You must engage, and you must curate. You must create unique and memorable moments that will resonate with the community as we navigate through these challenging times.
With early impressionist paintings and the work of artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Boardman Robinson, the early merchants elevated the customer experience through the integration of art into their environments. Inspiration is everywhere, but people today are cut off from the spaces that they normally gravitate to. How do they satisfy their need to participate and interact while still at home? Bring the space to them, let them walk through your website the way they would walk through your store, the way they would walk through a gallery. The history of retail presentation is inexorably connected to the philosophies of salon and museum exhibition. Conduct virtual exhibitions and concerts. Elevate the experience by providing music, art and participatory events.
Wanamaker said, “The time to advertise is all the time.” Communicate frequently and transparently in different ways, whether it’s via podcasts, Zoom presentations, emails – even direct mail. Stay connected with customers, partners and the community. Take them out of their shelters and cocoons. Do more than sell: educate, engage, inspire and bring them to another place, another time and another state of mind. Convert their fantasies into realities.
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.