Walk into an upscale mall today and there's something new and different that's hard to overlook. The storefronts of some of the most trendy national retailers -- Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister, just to name a couple -- appear to be hardly storefronts at all. No expansive entryways framed by plate glass, inviting customers into the store. Instead, these stores have been hidden behind elaborate walls and narrower doorways, hiding from view all that lies behind.
It's a bit startling the first time you encounter them.
In this new concept of a storefront, there is something forbidding, exclusionary. The message is clear; if you're merely curious, window shopping perhaps, then this store isn't for you. If you feel put off by what you see, uncertain perhaps, then keep walking.
But if you get it, if you want to be a part of this, if this is who you are, then this place is for you, come on in!
In very dramatic fashion, these retailers have demonstrated the underlying concept behind niche retailing. They are not trying to be meaningful, much less important, to everybody. But to their target customer they seek to be extremely meaningful, incredibly important. So important, in fact, that they seek not just to shape the identity of their customer, but to become no less than an integral part of their customer's identity. An identity built around being on the inside, belonging to an exclusive club of others just like them, who are just as fashionable, trendy, just as NOW!
These retailers are selling cachet in the form of a shared identity, a lifestyle, an aspiration, an attitude, on the cutting edge of fashion. And in the effort to appeal and be meaningful to these customers, these retailers understand that they must consciously exclude other potential customers, who might not get it, who neither look nor play the part. They are selling fashion out on the edge, so they adopt a retail strategy that's out on the edge.
It's not enough for an independent retailer to sell stuff anymore. Big box, mass merchants sell stuff. Independent retailers must sell cachet. Your store must connect directly with your customers in a unique, compelling way.
For an independent retailer, cachet can come in many different forms, but in the end it's all about emotion. It's about how your customer feels when she walk through your door, when she first encounters an item which captures her imagination, when she makes the purchase and leaves your store, when she gets it home and looks at it again, recalling how she felt when she first saw it, when she shows it to her family and friends, when she uses it for the first time.
To a younger customer at A&F or Hollister, it might be a new top, a top that she'll put on for the first time the next morning, anticipating the compliments she'll get. Maybe it's a new bag, funky and full of spirit, which exudes attitude and energy, and announces her arrival, as clearly as her hair or her clothes.
To a slightly older customer in a different retail setting, perhaps it's a centerpiece for the table for when she has special friends for dinner in a couple of nights. Or maybe it's a set of curtains and several throw pillows that will change the feel of her favorite room, change the way she feels every time she walks through the door.
And it all begins when she walks through your door.
Are you offering her that compelling experience? The emotional response can take many forms but you must elicit an emotional response. Emotions make it memorable. And that memory will keep her coming back to your door again and again.
What is that emotional response? It might be a homey, warm-all-over feeling, like the smell of freshly baked apple pie. Or it might be a WOW, like the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display. Or something in between. It's not necessarily a conscious response, more likely it's purely visceral.
There are many ways to create this emotional connection with your customers, but first impressions are critical. What's the first impression when she walks through your door, the feeling? It can be conveyed in the design and build out of the entryway, the color scheme, the décor. It can be conveyed by the warm and engaging greeting of the sales associate she meets when she comes into the store. It can be conveyed through any of her senses, sight, sound, smell, touch, and it's all the more powerful if it's conveyed through several at the same time.
Is your merchandise assortment consistent with the connection you're trying to create? Is it displayed in a way that allows her to easily take it in at a glance and be intrigued and captivated by what she sees? Your displays and presentations must capture her imagination by offering unexpected treasures that entice her to explore further.
Are your sales associates fully invested in the experience you are trying to create for your customer? Is your customer the most important person to your associates when she's in your store? Associates that are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your merchandise, the ways that merchandise is used and how they make the customer feel contribute powerfully to the customer experience. Customers are socially oriented like all of us, and will form powerful connections with others who share their passions. If your store is, in fact, an insiders club of passionate, like minded enthusiasts, your associates must be fully-invested members of the club!
It might have once been enough to offer the best stuff at good prices. Those days are gone forever. There are an endless number of places that sell stuff, starting with the Internet. But only stores can create a powerful, compelling experience. A customer will go into any store once, if only out of curiosity, but it's the power of the experience, and the emotional connection they make, which will keep them coming back over and over again.