• American inspiration
  • American inspiration


    Neil Whitehead argues that UK has much to learn about retailing from our friends in the US.

    Consumers want for nothing in our multi-channel communications retail world. But this hasn’t curbed appetites and expectations. So in deeply competitive markets with numerous homogenised products, the focus has, inevitably, shifted to the retail ‘experience’.

    The need to create alluring store milieus is greater than ever, as is he need to find ways to keep the customer satisfied. This is where I believe we can learn a few lessons from the US. American stores provide a clearly coordinated visual merchandising experience: everywhere you go there are great combinations of products to buy. In addition to high aesthetic values, the best stores extend individual items into products stories. Store hotspots stimulate the consumer, explain visually what products mean and create lifestyles and ‘needs’.

    This is because American merchandisers, buyers and planners work centrally and collectively to sell combinations of products. They incorporate very defined planning for the time of year, and are highly responsive to consumer moods and living experiences. This is reflected with colour, tone and ambience. There is an overall holistic, organised system that involves the customer and makes products relevant.

    US retailers, I believe, still focus on the product on the shelf and use PoS to entice customers. Our stores concentrate on clear ticketing, routes and adjacencies. We have defined areas, but not whole stories. We’ll highlight a product through a photograph and then leave the customer to trawl through the store to find it. Obviously, I’m not saying that the UK doesn’t have hotspots, product combinations or ideas for different seasons and moods. But we don’t seem to offer the mouth-watering experiences found in the States.

    One of the best US retailers is, I think, Williams-Sonoma. The essence of the store is ‘the quality of cooking’ where you see a chef at work as you walk in. Defined areas are devoted to themes (such as making eggs Benedict), making seemingly disparate products relevant. BBQ’s are not simply displayed and priced, but reveal a whole BBQ story. There is, of course, a mix:  the same products are also located in the bulk areas merchandised close by, but the store is inspiring and easy to use. Delectable combinations leave you feeling you should buy everything.

    Another example is ABC stores. When I visited, it had a central theme of ‘the spirit of white’. The layout was based on the idea of a museum, with meaning given to products by contextual and cultural scenes. The C2B Crate & Barrel hybrid store is also excellent, directed clearly at a young professional audience, with distinct colour areas and innovative products in many combinations.

    In the UK, the Conran shop incorporates co-ordinated visual merchandising to some extent and the M&S Lifestore took inspiration from US retailing. However, defined planning for products, appropriate to the time of year, is, without doubt, still missing. I’ve heard retailers say that this is because they do not have skills within their business to work to this level. But it simply isn’t a good enough excuse that we always have to work to the lowest common denominator – that it is ultimately down to the shop floor assistant. Their focus is service, they are not experts in merchandising.

    Effective, enticing visual merchandising is about having a central team working together, constantly investing in changing VM and buyer concepts. We need to restructure and approach the retailing process in a different way. Retailing must be linked with commercial nous to make and edit complete stories for the end user.

    Trend and colour prediction are important beyond the fashion industry. Retailers need to be more responsive to seasonal themes and show awareness of how world affairs affect moods. Themes of insecurity provoke preferences for natural materials, warmth and comfort. Times of buoyancy and confidence bring a desire for bold, colder colours.

    And in our competitive, multi-media environment, we need new products, and combinations of products – in short, new ideas. A store should motivate people to have more things around the home. It’s about helping people to feel they have better living habitats, and that the retail world can help them improve this effortlessly. As in the US, our stores should involve the customer and unveil elements of a recipe that draw you in, making you want all the ingredients that make up the whole lifestyle.

    September 2004