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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What Makes a Destination?

My retail experience 'treat' - which started with Retail Experience and the Human Element - continues with a focus on what makes a retail experience a destination.

In other words, why would you go out of your way to visit a retail store given all of the choices available? Certainly, how well you are treated plays a big role. And how special the retail environment matters, too. But, another aspect has to do with the uniqueness of the products and consistency of the merchandising. Or, a passion for the mission.

I was excited to finally experience Zara 5th Avenue [I walked past another on 59th by Lexington later] . I first learned about Zara from a November 2004 Harvard Business Review article [titled "Rapid Fire Fulfillment"]. And, earlier this year at the Envirosell "Science of Shopping" conference, Paco Underhill introduced Jose Luis Nueno, marketing professor at Spain's IESE business school, to talk about Zara [he sits on the board of Zara and several other European 'powerhouse merchants'].

Zara is remarkable for being absolutely on top of the fashion game with the most efficient supply chain system in the world - it can develop, make and deliver anywhere around the world a new apparel style in 15 days! It has created a means of rapidly responding to changing customer preferences via an amazing store communications system. This enables the company to get feedback on new styles [10,000 new introductions per year] to decide whether to ramp up or down on production runs. Part of their secret - which goes against conventional practices - is to limit product supply, and constantly replenish with new products. In other words, deliver 'fast fashion'.

Do read Andrea Learned's posting titled " Women Buy Zara's Scarcity" which will point you to a February 2005 HBR archive on Zara. Do also check out the Zara website which offers a marvelous visual display of many of its store fronts and store windows around the world, and even discusses the latest fashion trends.

I thoroughly enjoyed the store: elegant, with a European fashion feel, and fun Spanish music pulsing throughout. Product did indeed look unique, wearable, well made yet not stratospherically priced! I liked the variety and quantity of garments available: enough to be interesting and showcase different styles, but not so many that I felt overwhelmed. I checked out both women's wear floors. The store offered wonderful oases of space to allow the consumer to better absorb and internalize the choices. I felt welcome and look forward to returning to investigate further.

- A quick dash through the Disney Store 55th/5th Avenue. I definitely need to give this store more time. I became quickly overwhelmed with all of the Disney theater effects - music, lighting, unbelievably elaborate costumes [with high price tags] and had to get out for air. I plan on returning with a member of the target audience [5 year old girl]! Check out the website; it effectively showcases how unique this store is compared to the mall based stores, as well as the DisneyLand/World stores. I have high expectations that this store does a good job linking emotionally to the NYC based Disney productions.

- Toys R Us, Times Square: yes, the Ferris Wheel is impressive! As I entered, a Toys R Us employee took my picture and said I could check it out in 10-15 minutes. A few steps further and a circus ringmaster wouldn't have been out of place given the strong sense of 'let the entertainment begin!' Toy demonstrations, employees with silly hats... It reminded me of what I imagine old style retailing to be like.

On the 2nd floor, I saw the gigantic Lego dinosaur. Impressive, but I had seen it last summer. Shouldn't that change? I needed some directions and had to interrupt 2 salespeople for help. Oops, I definitely bothered them. Now, mind you, it was approx. 10:15am on a weekday and I was a customer. Right? Made it past the Thomas the tank engine section with a large interactive kids play tables, and then found the Barbie Boutique.

The Barbie Boutique is supposed to be a big deal - 2 stories with all things Barbie. A celebration of sorts, right? Wrong. I noticed sales signs everywhere. I expected to find a deep assortment of all products associated with the Barbie brand extensions. Not. I expected to find a place where all of the fancy castles are displayed for inspection and play. Not. I expected something exciting on the 2nd floor of this unusual store within a store, something that recaptured the magical playhouses of childhood. Not! Rather it was uninviting and unengaging; no magic, no soul. No passion!

And it's not just in the Barbie area.

I went down to check out my picture; it wasn't yet ready. Do you know that they wanted $13 for a copy? or $25 for a digital file!!!! Hmmm. I might have felt better about the photo had I been asked if I had a camera. I originally thought the photo idea was a nice touch, but why so expensive? Just because I'm a captive audience? Seems the photo can also appear on a marquee, but no one really explained the various options available. It wound up making me angry and suspicious of the store's motives and it all seemed really amateurish: the young woman at the photo desk thought she could refer me to a website to decide later [Disney does that], but she couldn't locate one. I learned that with the $25 I was eligible for a discount on a purchase. Now, wouldn't a consumer want to know this before leaving the store?

Here's another point of frustration - make sure to integrate your website with your physical store: I later visited the Toys R Us website. It had little to do with how the store was organized. I called the NYC store, left a message [no live person available] and a week later I'm still waiting for someone to return my call. I guess they don't want my business. By the way, I found what I was looking for on eBay, and have already received it.

For a so-called destination or flagship, this was a so-so retail experience. Cool ferris wheel, but I have plenty of other more satisfying options available.

As I think about which of these stores were truly Destination Stores, I realize that Zara offered me the most unique and differentiated product selection in an environment that passionately believes in its mission: Fast Fashion. Urban Outfitters in Retail Experience and the Human Element conveyed passion and uniqueness in its desire to create an engaging consumer environment: it made me want to stay and browse. These 2 stores are not flagship stores; they represent one of several in the NYC area. Yet, they have managed to create a desireable retail environment as a normal course of business whereas two of the flagship stores I visited had issues - with the human element and the un-integrated, uninspired merchandising.

So, if it isn't necessary to be a flagship to be a Destination, then any store truly committed to showcasing passion for product and experience qualifies, including carpet and flooring stores!

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