The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Published by Summer Fancy Food Show 2015

We live in a world of plenty: plenty of blue jeans, khakis, shoes, watches, cheese, bread, meat and wine. And you can buy this plenty at plenty of different kinds of retail outlets and channels. If you are a brick and mortar retailer today, trying to sell in this world of plenty can be, well, a really tough sell. As if the big box retail era wasn’t already challenging enough to contend with, the internet has made the world of plenty even bigger, wider and seemingly bottomless. In addition to its incredible search and find capacity, the internet aims to eliminate all the things it deems “unnecessary, wasteful and superfluous” to the purchase process—which, for many online retailers, includes visual merchandising, end caps, lighting, mirrors, dressing rooms, salespeople and perhaps even the stores themselves. Whether by design or accident, the cumulative effect of the internet has been to continually eek out ever more efficiency from the retail market, and to try to turn everything up for sale into a stripped down, price-driven commodity, devoid of any extra “stuff.” This fundamental shift is making the viability of the retail store experience increasingly scrutinized and challening.

So what’s a retailer to do? Well, my suggestion is to not get rid of stuff and join the commodity race to the low margin bottom, but to instead focus on adding the “right stuff” back into your stores.

In today’s world of plenty, consumers tend to get overwhelmed with too many options and too much information. We now live in a world where there’s plenty of supply, plenty of deals and plenty of quality options for consumers. The real problem today is creating consumer demand for your product offerings, particularly new demand. What consumers are really seeking is help to edit down their choices to the best few options that fit them, their particular need or problem and their unique lifestyle.

One of the best ways for retailers to help customers edit down their choice bewilderment is to offer a distinctive Point of View (POV). This is, in essence, what a good lifestyle magazine or effective blog does: it evaluates the incredibly large world of information, ideas, choices and products out there—such as the best diet tips, exercise regimens, vacations, tires, cameras or holiday gift ideas—and edits them down to the best few choices that fit the profile of their target audience. In many ways, it can really help retailers to think of their store as a lifestyle magazine, just like Real Simple, Bon Appetit, Southern Living or Weight Watchers. Great magazines have a distinctive POV on the world and a particular perspective on how to live a better life.

...What seems to be missing in so many of the stores I study is a distinctive POV

For the last two decades I have spent most of my days, and far too many nights, working inside retail store environments, crafting strategies for client brands and designing retail innovations. And while I get to see lots of clean, well-stocked, well-priced, well-serviced and well-merchandised stores, what seems to be missing in so many of the stores I study is a distinctive POV. Of all the products they could possibly source and sell, why do all these particular products makes sense together, and what consumer audience are we trying to communicate with? The last place you want to be in retail these days is in a store that’s a lumberyard or stockyard of unedited, un-curated stuff. (Google already has that store approach down pat.) So the first thing we typically do with retail clients is help them uncover and develop their own distinctive POV for how to edit and curate their products, and then provide a presentation strategy and store design approach that correlates to that POV. While this is not an easy process—as it requires editing out a lot of things that don’t make sense and making tough editing decisions that impacts long-standing traditions and sometimes supplier relationships—it never ceases to amaze me how effective this process is for getting retailers out of the commodity rut, tightening their focus on consumer relevance and creating a more specific message to their consumer audience.

A good way to think about a distinctive POV is as an overarching philosophy, system and set of rules for organizing a variety or products, ideas, thoughts, solutions and emotions in your store, and in your brand thinking. Once a retailer stakes out a POV, it also lays a foundation for a lot of other related decisions. For example, in a world with plenty of khaki pants (anyone remember the Great Khaki Wars of the 1990s?), a successful brand like Tommy Bahama stands out not by offering more variety or cheaper prices, but by creating a strong POV that hinges on the central idea that “life is one long weekend.” That particular point of view is not only distinctively different, but also attractive, compelling and appropriate for a certain core group of consumers who have disposable income but are tired of working so hard in suits. So it makes sense that everything in the Tommy Bahama store and brand experience—from the smells, to the sights, from the sounds, to the sales people they meet— reinforces this idea of life as one long weekend. You can literally taste, touch, hear, smell and feel this long weekend in the wood floors, ceiling fans, shutters, Pina colada misters and ambiance of the space. Not only does this POV put the customer in the right state of mind to want to buy these non-commoditized products, but it also really helps the organization think about the right kind of context, environment and story for these products to exist within.

A distinctive POV is as an overarching philosophy, system and set of rules for organizing a variety or products, ideas, thoughts, solutions and emotions

As it relates specifically to food retail, the most successful retailer brands usually originate from a robust POV, which then gets translated and communicated through a number of different mediums: product mix, merchandising, store environment, communications, graphics and more. For example, Whole Foods owns a compelling “mother earth knows best” POV that was and still remains a great alternative to the industrial “big food” approach that most supermarket brands have traditionally leaned on. The origin story of Whole Foods comes from the roots of an old health food store and a seasoned veteran of the food movement (no matter that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey does not fit the mold of this imagined hippy, granola VW Van driving founder). The authenticity of this powerful POV appeals to increasing numbers of consumers—especially younger consumers—who have become suspect and wary of “big food,” all the while that the Whole Foods corporation gets bigger itself. But the Whole Foods brand POV is very compelling for our times and is continually sharpened through a variety of mediums. The store environments feature a lot of natural wood and earth tone colors and materials. Above all, the retail experience is as focused on making shopping persuasive and easy, as it is on communicating messages about the brand’s distinctive food philosophy—which includes a set of professed values and beliefs directly derived from the Whole Foods POV. Although the actual box and its components are very similar to most other grocery stores, the store’s experiential POV is unlike any other stores out there. And that kind of distinctiveness can really make a difference in a world of plenty of grocery store commodities.

But there many other equally compelling POV’s out there in the food world to study and learn from. The fun, whimsical, exotic and thrifty POV of Trader Joe’s is effectively communicated in its stores through wood paneling, handwritten chalk boards, Hawaiian shirts and slightly hidden treasures. These things are not just random, but tie together into an overall story, theme, language and visual vocabulary that makes sense in a Trader Joe’s kind of way. The core audience of Trader Joe’s enjoys the thrill of bargain-gourmet hunting, discovery and adventure. The mythology of Joe is that he is a world traveller, and from this POV he brings back all kinds of whacky and surprising stories about the interesting products he found and sourced from around the globe. Consumers have come to expect a particular kind of quirky attitude, flavor, presentation and wackiness at Trader Joe’s, which is distinctively different and more fun than what you find in most typical, boring, beige grocery store experiences. 

These things are not just random, but tie together into an overall story, theme, language and visual vocabulary that makes sense in a Trader Joe’s kind of way.

On the other extreme, Costco communicates its POV from the perspective of a warehouse supply chain guru. The Costco retail theater makes customers feel like they might have to dodge a forklift driver to push their cart—overflowing with rotisserie chickens, hubcap sized pumpkin pies and a year’s supply of toilet paper—over to the front end. Costco’s warehouse racks, limited selection buys, raw industrial building components and oversized carts big enough to fit a 52 inch flat screen TV makes people believe they’re buying products direct from the warehouse source and cutting out the middleman. There is even this sense of urgency that the deals wont last long, so come and get it before its all gone. And of course, perpetuating this unique warehouse-esque POV is by design. As Jim Sinegal, Costco’s co-founder and recently retired CEO, put it, “We try to create an image of a warehouse type of an environment…I once joked it costs a lot of money to make these places look cheap. But we spend a lot of time and energy in trying to create that image.”

Undoubtedly, the forces of commoditization are here to stay. There is no getting that genie back in the bottle. The few retailers that are able to break out of the commodity rut and charge a slight premium for their products—everyone from Wegmans to Ralph Lauren, Central Market to Crate & Barrel and Fresh Market to Sur La Table—have a distinctive POV that is not only unique and proprietary, but able to attract people who willingly choose and prefer to indulge in the store experience. Although they sell many commodities, they surround them with the “right stuff” and process them through a contextually rich POV that makes them feel truly different. While there are many other factors that go into making a successful retail brand, having a distinctive POV will go a long way in helping both your customers and your organization gain clarity around how your stores can stand out in a world of plenty.


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