What's in store for shoppers: The Retail Roundtable [Extended]

The relationship between online and bricks-and-mortar has grown increasingly symbiotic. Retails sector leaders gathered in Minneapolis at this Carmichael Lynch Relate-hosted roundtable to discuss the importance of in-store experiences, counsel on social media and content creation, and predict the industry's next big game-changer.

Retailers have great stories to tell - and are getting that chance with the National Retail Federation's Retail Across America tour.

The Panel

-Eddie Baeb, PR lead, Target
-Sue Golden, SVP/GM, The Mars Agency
-Eric Hausman, retail practice chair, partner, Carmichael Lynch Relate
-Paul Maccabee, CEO, Maccabee
-Ellen Moreau, SVP of marcomms, Sherwin-Williams
-Emily Shannon, director of digital, Mall of America
-Megan Tamte, founder and CEO, Evereve
-Bill Thorne, SVP, communications and public affairs, National Retail Federation

Physical connection

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): There is a symbiotic relationship between bricks-and-mortar retail and online. In the last few years, e-commerce players have launched physical locations to, among other things, boost online traffic. Since they clearly matter, what should retailers be doing to create in-store experiences that truly resonate with consumers?

Eric Hausman (Carmichael Lynch Relate): People want to touch product. And they want to get it right away. They’re less interested in the off-purchase opportunities. That doesn’t mean no retailer should do it. REI has got a great climbing wall that people love. You need to figure out what’s right for your customers in-store.

Another theme we saw in a recent survey we conducted is that some of the experiences consumers are getting online they actually want in-store. So we know people make purchases based on recommendations online. Customers are saying, "Just like you’re doing online, help me in-store, too. Point me in the right direction of something that I might want." That’s probably being explored, but hasn’t been figured out yet. It’s a big opportunity to keep bricks-and-mortar stores relevant for customers.

Sue Golden (Mars Agency): Obviously the in-store experience is integral. It’s critical that a retailer understands the role of in-store versus the role of online. I feel everything that’s gravitating to in-store has to be this and online is this. But in-store could be fulfillment. Or some of your stores could be about fulfillment and others could be about providing a brand experience. It is a critical to understand the role.

Starbucks was the first retailer to really create an in-store experience. It is a place to be and meet, but the experience is relevant because of what they sell. I’m looking at other retailers that are trying to add bars in their stores; I don’t know if that’s going to be relevant based on what they sell. The most important thing – and I took this from an article I read – is the potential for the store to become the place during the shopper journey for consumers to "experience" the brand. There are certain emotions that only an interaction with a real human can offer. We must not forget that.

Megan Tamte (Evereve): We built our retail concept around the idea of a very specific customer – a mom.  And our moms want us to be quick, they want help, and – from a fashion perspective – they want edge. We’ve recently started a new styling service called Trendsend, which is an extension of our bricks-and-mortar experience. We’ve tapped stylists in our stores to create boxes for customers full of clothes that we send to their homes. Moms can pick what they want from the box and send back to the store what they don’t.

Most importantly, our moms want employees who care. They want people who are servicing them not necessarily to make a sale, but to be part of something meaningful with our customers. How do we get employees to really care about the people who walk through the doors? That’s really powerful work.

Paul Maccabee (Maccabee): It’s not only a positive experience that retailers have to give. It has to be unexpected and surprising, so much so that a customer – perhaps a millennial – might document it on social.

Think of when Target had pop star Meghan Trainor. I don’t know if a lot of everyday pedestrians saw her, but for those who did it was like, "I’ve been to Target so many times and I’ve never run into a superstar!" The Marc Jacobs fashion chain had a money-free day when the currency in store was replaced by tweets and the person who had the most creative tweet got a handbag. They didn’t promote it so it was a surprise. I would go to a Marc Jacobs store just for that! Delighting in an unexpected way fits social so well.

To contrast those two examples, I go to Barnes & Noble every 10 days and yet every experience, as pleasant as it is, is drearily similar. I’ve never had a cashier who has all the data on everything I’ve ever bought and say to me, "Here’s a paperback." If they gave me a $2 paperback, I’d come back the next day and spend $100. So unexpected surprises, often augmented by social – that’s the experience, particularly to millennials, that retailers have to give.

Eddie Baeb (Target): Meghan Trainor playing an instrument in the furniture section was pretty awesome. It’s interesting you go there because when people think of in-store experience they think of entertainment. But it’s about much more than that. What you really need is your experience to affirm to a customer this is what your store is all about and also confirms to them this is what they wanted. They’re getting ease and convenience, and the experience is the differentiator. But it has to be true to your brand.

We opened a store in San Francisco dedicated to connected products called Open House. It helps us solve some of the challenges we have with this kind of product in a big merchandise store. Should a connected dog leash and collar go with the pet stuff or in the electronics section? It’s clearly both. And it’s very hard to understand this product when it’s in a box. In a place like Open House we’re testing experiential retailing. I wouldn’t say it’s about entertainment, it’s really about storytelling. Those products need to come to life. So we display it and the customer can see what the dog collar can do.

On a smaller yet still innovative scale, we looked at our dollar section, One Spot. We said it was a productive use of space, but it wasn’t giving quite the experience we needed. So we renamed it Bullseye's Playground and put an animated figure of our mascot bobbing up from the shelves. Just by elevating that area a little bit – the sales lift has been through the roof. Now this is the experience a Target shopper thinks of when they go to our dollar section. It’s much more aspirational and true to our brand.                                                                                                        

Emily Shannon (Mall of America): It boils down to allowing your customers to participate with what your brand stands for. We see this through so many of our retailers. [Apparel lifestyle and retail company] Free People does a really good job of this. They have this boho-chic vibe, so they’ll regularly have bloggers come into the store to style guests.

Sport Chek is a Canadian retailer who also does this really well. They have a location at our sister property in West Edmonton Mall and have a lot of in-store experiences to help fuel the products they sell, whether it’s being able to step on a treadmill to find the right running shoes or testing out a kayak in a small pond. It’s about allowing customers to participate with your brand in some really creative and innovative ways.

Ellen Moreau (Sherwin-Williams): We try to look at the interplay between online and in-store. For example, when people are looking online – which is where they start their process to buy paint – visualizers are great and help to narrow their color selections. But that is not necessarily the color that is going to show up on their wall.  We have to make sure the store is able to pay off that online experience. We do YouTube videos and Q&As and a lot online, but if something is really important to them, that one-on-one makes a huge difference.

Bill Thorne (National Retail Federation [NRF]): I asked one of the communicators of a very large retailer if the word "omnichannel" evens exist anymore. Isn’t it all just retail? He said externally it’s just retail, but internally it is differentiated. For example, buyers for online were getting these wonderful red dresses, but those for in-store were buying wonderful blue dresses. So somebody could see the red dresses online and run down to Macy’s to buy them, only to be told they only have blue dresses. Integration is not that easy, especially when going from primarily bricks-and-mortar to online. The pure players have it a little easier. They’re all trying to make the experience as seamless as possible, but they’re facing a lot of hurdles. It’s just going to take time.

Mobile mindset

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the most effective ways to reach consumers in the mobile space?

Moreau (Sherwin-Williams): There’s a great opportunity to let mobile help in-store. If someone has figured out what color they want from the online visualizer, we have people to help them, but we also have an app that can direct them to the color so they can get it right away. We can also take it a step further. They can see what an actual color looks like in a room by scanning the color number.

Shannon (Mall of America): When you think about mobile, number one, don’t lose sight of utility. Solve those biggest customer pain points first because that’s what your customers are going to tell you they’re disgruntled about. We mine a lot of social and text message data to understand what customers consider their biggest challenges. We found 40% of all text conversations delivered to our social media command center are from shoppers trying to find their way around. When designing our mobile app, we knew we had to get that right. Quite frankly, we’re still trying to get that right, because making a 5.7 million-square-foot building work well with navigation software is difficult.

The other thing we’re continually trying to do is bake surprise-and-delight elements of service into mobile for our guests. Through our app, people can connect with a digital concierge who can help them find their way around or pick up that perfect gift.

Golden (Mars Agency): Mobile allows us to create this very personalized and localized experience that bricks-and-mortar can’t, whether it is the concierge or the Sherpa service that North Face has. It’s about making consumers feel valued and their needs recognized. On the Walgreens app you can chat with a doctor 24/7. You don’t even have to go in their stores anymore. When you talk about the ultimate in convenience – for $45 and a 10-minute wait you can get all your questions answered.

Hausman (Carmichael Lynch Relate): Mobile is where everybody is all the time. The challenge is figuring out what to put there because it’s still a relatively small screen. That’s where personalization comes in, because what one person might be looking for on a retail app is probably different from what another person might be looking for on the same app. Also, what I might want to look at in-store is different than when I’m on my couch. The ability to offer the right experience at the right time will continue to be key.

Additionally, as it pertains to apps, I’ve been hearing about people going back to mobile Web again. It had been mobile Web and then all app and now people are finding the mobile Web useful again. Recognizing that there’s only so many apps we’re going to put on our phones, there’s a big opportunity for mobile Web.

Maccabee (Maccabee): When retailers and their agencies hear the word mobile, they instinctively think app. But here are the daunting statistics. Our survey found barely seven of 100 different retail apps received a "B" score or better from consumers. Forrester found that while, yes, consumers are on mobile all the time, they’re often going to the website which may not be responsive. In addition to coming up with an incredibly sexy app, retailers have to make sure they’re getting right the less sexy part of it – optimizing every venue that a retailer has online. 

Forrester also found 60% of consumers who use a smartphone to shop have fewer than two retailer-specific apps – and one of them is Amazon. So if you’re only competing in the app space, you’re competing directly with Amazon or perhaps Walmart. But if you think of the mobile Web as a panoply, then as a retailer you’re going to win.

Tamte (Evereve): I spend a lot of time thinking about our 1,200 employees. How do we engage in the mobile space with our employees and share tips about styling, clothing, and fashion? It’s about helping them understand what we do and why we do it. We’ve been developing some new ideas with our employee engagement and mobile.

Baeb (Target): I saw a presentation from a venture capitalist that made me think of how pervasive mobile and smartphone technology actually is. If you think about a drone, it is a smartphone with wings. If you think about a driverless car, it’s a smartphone with wheels. That’s how big and pervasive these opportunities are. What do this all mean for a retailer? A ton.

Target has long focused on mobile – and we have seen that pay dividends. We have two of the most downloaded apps in retail, our flagship app and our Cartwheel deal app. Our flagship app allows you to search Target.com and search the local store that you’re in. You can search for a product and a map will show you where the product is that they’re looking for, whether it’s halfway or three-quarters of the way down an aisle. That’s what people want. It is mobile as utility.

The Cartwheel app is about saving money.  It is really the digitization of the weekly ad with coupons.

The third thing is we have now made our desktop website mirror our mobile website. We used to be mobile first, but really we’re mobile only. It’s one site.

Thorne (NRF): Jeff Bezos was once asked if he considered himself a retailer? He said, "No. I’m a technologist." So that’s the way it’s going. I would say Amazon is a retailer, but Bezos is also focused on what’s driving profits for his company. And it’s the technology that’s meeting the customer expectation, demand, and driving the sales.

Entering the conversations

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is the most effective and authentic way for retail brands to get involved in conversation among consumers on social media and, just as importantly, when should retail brands know not to get involved?

Golden (Mars Agency): When it comes to social, it’s not a campaign, it is about starting a conversation. But it has to authentically add value as well as recognize how we digest content – videos, infographics, etc.  – because people’s attention span is very small.

Thorne (NRF): The biggest challenge for companies is when something negative is out there. You might want to just dive into the conversation. What I believe can work better is to have others speak for you. There are those who know you, believe in you, and will defend you. Have those people lined up and ready so that when those issues arise they’re available.

Hausman (Carmichael Lynch Relate): To that point, when there’s a conversation going on, if you don’t have anything strong to add that’s going to further the conversation, you don’t need to be involved. Just because people are talking about your brand, whether it’s positive or negative, that’s OK. That’s how people talk. People talk offline that way and people can talk online that way.

But there’s opportunity for brands to continue to empower their employees to respond in social on behalf of the brand when it’s appropriate. Just like if you’re out at the movies and you hear somebody talking about your brand, you might jump in and say, "I work there and this is how this works." Why not let employees do that more in social? It’s clearly more risky and a lot of brands are scared to do it, but that’s a more authentic way to have conversations.

Baeb (Target): There is a lot to timing. An interesting example this year was with our back-to-school campaign. As a procrastinating parent myself, I’m not ready for all those back-to-school ads in July. Apparently I’m not the only one. We start our mass broadcast spots in July for those people who are way more on top of their lives than I ever will be, but we don’t turn the social component on until mid-August because that’s when the consumer is actually going to be having that conversation. Historically, brands have made the mistake of, "We’re turning on our marketing campaign, so it’s time to turn on our social conversation." Guess what? You could be talking to an empty room.

Shannon (Mall of America): To be able to have conversations on social in real-time has required us breaking down tons of silos – with our security team, our PR team, our digital team, community managers, even our leadership team. It truly has brought everyone to the table and in the last couple of years we’ve had conversations that we weren’t previously having. They have emerged as a result of listening on social, because it’s this really easy conduit guests have to reach out to us. But you must have the right organizational procedures in place to be able to handle that conversation.

Maccabee (Maccabee): A final anecdote that illustrates why listening on social media is so important. I’ve never been on the Zappos website. Zappos did a very clever marketing campaign recently. I read about it and tweeted, "OMG, Zappos is so smart" and then did a Bitly link to the article. Fifteen minutes later, my social media director screams from her office, "Oh my God, Zappos is talking to you." I go into my notifications and there’s someone at Zappos going, "Thanks for the thumbs up, Paul. Here’s another link to another campaign we’ve done. What do you think?"

I went on the Zappos site for the first time after that and I’m probably going to buy some boots. It was just because they were nimble. They didn’t talk about Donald Trump. They interacted with me in a way that said they knew I was talking about marketing. It wasn’t a robot. It wasn’t automated. It was exactly what you want engagement to be: relevant, nimble, and with clarity.

Getting content

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): We hear all the time about storytelling and content creation. What is the goal of great content?

Hausman (Carmichael Lynch Relate): All companies, generally speaking, are in the business of sales so, of course, it all layers up to that. The sale may be today, it may be tomorrow, it may be six months down the line, which is what makes it so hard to measure and prove the validity of content, but intuitively that’s how it all comes together.

Moreau (Sherwin-Williams): Everything we do has to drive sales, but it’s definitely not a linear equation. Your connection with consumers and being top-of-mind and having a good brand image, that is what really ends up making someone shop with you and not the fact you have a promotion for 20% off. So we do a lot of things to create content that is not directly related to our brand. National Painting Week is a chance for us to get out into the marketplace, talk about how we can help people live their lives better with paint and color, and do good work in communities.

On top of that, we layer on other things. We have bloggers that work during that time period and we get user-generated content from our SW Color Love. People can see on a website not just things that we put together, but real content that other people are doing with their homes using our paints, products, and colors. It doesn’t necessarily translate directly into a sale, but it positions us as a great place and makes people realize we are part of the fabric of the community. That goes a long way to really building a relationship with a person, not just trying to sell them a product.

Maccabee (Maccabee): I’d focus on the common, but utter and complete misconception that millennials don’t read news. In fact, millennials read more books than people over the age of 30 and are devourers of news content. However, they don’t sit down with The New York Times for 30 minutes. They read the Times article reprinted by the Huffington Post or on Tumblr or on Facebook while they’re waiting in line at a coffee shop or in between activities.  So to my mind, when we talk to clients about earned news content, the classic traditional PR product, as it were, is as valuable as ever. Your target audience may not hear about it in a magazine, on a TV show, or on a radio station, but it will be in some other format.

Baeb (Target): A couple years back, we started a corporate blog that has morphed and been made part of our corporate website. Now the "about us" section no longer looks like a press release and a few facts and nuggets, but actually something more like a news magazine. We think about that content as brand love, which we talk about at Target. Is this content going to help create brand love and also a bridge to sales? It’s not necessarily driving as much sales as content with an embedded hyperlink. It’s really about driving more of an affinity that might get you to a sale at some point.

Thorne (NRF): Content is so incredibly important, but there’s some danger. We get so focused on it that we produce too much content and we don’t drive people to where we want them to go. They get lost very quickly. We’ve got to make sure that the content is relevant, true, and compelling. Retailers understand more and more that reputation does help drive sales. It also helps you get into the communities that you want to serve and attract the people that you want to work at those stores.

Looking ahead

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Please offer a prediction on an industry-changing development – maybe a social platform on the rise, a particular marcomms tactic that you feel will be more effective than ever before, a notable shift in consumer behavior, or even a disruptive event – that will change retail in the near future.

Maccabee (Maccabee): I predict the comeback of event and experiential marketing; high-touch events to go with virtual reality that people still want. Even with great imagery and all you can do with video, people still want to hold a Nikon camera before they go into a retailer and buy. I’m a guitarist and I go to all the online guitar sites, but I still want to feel that guitar, want every one of the five senses, the smell of the wood, the sound of the vibrations, and so on.  

But I don’t think that event and experiential marketing is going to be in-store, or even near the store. There’s the airport – and yes they have stores in the airport, but if I’m bored out of my mind for three hours and someone comes up to me and says, "Check out this new Samsung Galaxy," they’d have my complete attention. We know that offline word of mouth drives twice as much sales as online word of mouth does and that they intertwine and augment. What’s going to be most powerful is to bring the retail experience into people’s homes, garages, schools, museums, libraries, airports, wherever they’re congregating and touch them. Then the website and mobile become augmentations of that feel, touch, and smell.

Hausman (Carmichael Lynch Relate): As part of our research, we wanted to get a sense as to how far consumers will go in letting technology do the work for them. What we learned is consumers are not ready to let people make orders or decisions for them. I believe that day will come as the technology gets better, as it exists in a more pervasive way, and people understand the value it can bring. Shoppers will start to segregate between the purchases that they don’t need help on and the purchases that they do. I envision a retailer saying, "Your cousin’s birthday is coming up. Last year you bought this. Do you want to buy that?" and the customer saying, "Yes, great, go for it." That doesn’t exist today, which is why it’s hard for people to say that’s what they want. But I could see that happening.

We’re also seeing bricks-and-mortar stores getting better at the digital world. We’ve seen online stores becoming a little bit more bricks-and-mortar. It’s so hard to start in one area and go in the other. There’s an opportunity in this crazy retail space for a new concept with a different name and a different approach that really builds online and offline together.

Shannon (Mall of America): As marketers, we spend a lot of time talking about millennials, but I predict that Gen Z will blow all our minds in ways that we had no idea even existed. Members of Gen Z, which is the generation coming up under millennials, are in their teen years right now. They have different behaviors than anything we’ve ever seen. They’ve never walked into a bank before. They’ve definitely never written a check. Cooking, buying food, that’s an entirely different experience with them.

This is the generation that’s making visual communication like emojis and Snapchat so popular. Video, YouTube, the rise of these social celebrities that this group follows, to me this is really the next big generational challenge that retailers and tech companies both have to solve. They’re not quite ruling the economy yet, but we have to understand how their behaviors are translating to their buying decisions, so we can figure out how to influence them and get them into our stores.

Moreau (Sherwin-Williams): Understanding the customer is the biggest thing that’s going to drive the future. A huge opportunity is artificial or cognitive intelligence – really being able to know more about customers than they know about themselves. Giving them better suggestions, better recommendations, whether it’s in-store or online. It’s not only an opportunity to make the customer experience better, but even things such as new product development. It could help manufacturers on their end of things, too.

Golden (Mars Agency): My prediction is really for omni-commerce, the internet of things. This is where loyalty is going to be crucial. Right now, probably 90% of what we purchase is still done in-store. But imagine auto-replenishment, your appliances knowing when to reorder something. The technology is there. Look what Amazon is doing. Once your brand gets into that cycle, it is no longer relevant to the consumer. If we don’t understand consumer experiences now and build that loyalty, we’re going to be out of the cycle.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in