Paradise Lost? What's Wrong with Retail When Everything's Right.

Imagine if every Wal-Mart and Target were a clutter-free wonderland, where your products are perfectly merchandised, every aisle is generously spaced with enough room for two-way traffic and then some, and the only thing cleaner than the sight lines is the floors. Envision the usual shopping cart cacophony reduced to a faint whoosh, olfactory assaults completely eliminated, and all audio turned down to pleasing ear-range volume. Order completely restored. Wouldn’t that be amazing? . . . Maybe.

Last week, I took some clients and colleagues on a safari here in Bentonville through Target’s latest and greatest P-Fresh prototype and two of Wal-Mart’s best examples of Project Impact. Yeah I know; Bentonville-area Wal-Marts are notoriously over-primped, and Target’s recent entry into this hostile territory has left nothing to chance, evidenced by associates constantly tidying up the place.

It’s a given that mass retail in Bentonville is a utopian exception, even if some other markets might follow the shop-off-the-floor rule — no need to explore that any further. What I did want to wrap my head around was what was still bugging me in the midst of all this perfection: what is it about shopping in these stores that leaves me cold even as I cross every mass retail gripe off the list?

. . . And Walmart and Target aren’t the only retailers cleaning up their acts. Walgreens is in the midst of a major transformation (its Customer Centric Retailing initiative) that promises to deliver similar results. I think it’s time to stop focusing on the anomalies and start exploring where things might go after this wave of retail rehab hits the beach. When the majority of stores are remodeled, cleaned up, digitized, and optimized, will the ideal have been achieved or will mega retailers, brands and shoppers let out a collective “Meh”?

Answering that question will be critical for Walmart as it bids a final farewell to defensive problem-solving and leads the way in future-seeking strategies. “There has never been a retail brand that has transitioned from one generation to the next,” Walmart CMO John Fleming said at the retailer’s recent sustainability summit and clearly, Walmart plans to set the precedent. As Target’s Teflon coating has begun to show more wear, the retailer has had to trade aspiration for perspiration. However, Target, too, will have to assume success and get back to the business of “what’s next?” if it’s to remain relevant.

When Mr. Fleming described Walmart’s progress on sustainability as being “at the end of the beginning,” it felt like an apt description of where shopper marketing and retail environments sit. When I take in the ready examples of retailers’ current visions fulfilled, here are the areas where I see disconnects and opportunities:

Engagement isn’t always emotional — If I’m playing with a game console and experimenting with makeup via an interactive digital display, I’m definitely engaging with products and brands in the store environment, and I might even make a purchase based on that engagement. However, isolated interactive experiences don’t forge emotional connections; stimulating environments that create a buzz and keep it going do. Mass retail’s new world of runways, wombs, and cocoons is a vast improvement over the former chutes-and-ladders chaos. But does this interactive island hopping presented in an ever more controlled environment add up to emotional engagement with shoppers, and how does it generate loyalty to the retail brand?

Stores unplugged — Social networking, ratings and reviews, digital marketing, courting power bloggers . . . Retailers’ attempts to connect with shoppers outside of the store are light years ahead of where they were even a year ago, particularly as they see how these touch points and stimulating conversations are driving traffic back to the stores. But all of that ends abruptly when shoppers enter the store. Although retailers used to place a high value on excitement, events, and happenings, they now envision the store environment as a kind of safe zone; a place where shoppers will collect their thoughts then make good decisions. The expectation seems to be that shoppers, armed with all the information and stimulation they received outside, will then enter the store and do the right thing inside: buy lots of merch.

When asked about the possibility of Walgreens creating an in-store TV network, for example, Kim Feil, Walgreens’ CMO commented, “we are a smaller box, and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of not having a refuge to get away from it all.” But is that playing it too safe?  The store-as-refuge model already seems disconnected and a bit antiquated to me —and like a downright buzz-kill as the “outside world” gets more and more exciting, and surprising, for shoppers.

Passive feels passé — I’ve commented about how Twitter is transforming customer engagement in one often-overlooked way: smart retailers and brands that have a Twitter presence aren’t just sitting idly by waiting for customers to make direct inquiries (“We’re available” marketing); they are actively seeking opportunities to connect by scouring the Twitterverse for any mention of their brands then swooping down to offer advice, props and promotions. In-store environments still don’t reflect this shift to reach-out-and-touch marketing. Digital displays that gently beckon, “Hey, over here . . . but only when you’re ready” in a stage whisper, anonymous self-serve checkout lanes, and even fully staffed kiosks and information centers are passive, permission-based connection points. If “clutter” in its various forms is retail’s current cardinal sin; passive engagement appears to be the only absolution offered.

“We are not talking about a revolutionary change to the Walgreens that people love,” Ms. Feil said speaking about Walgreen’s customer-centric initiative. “We’re not just sitting in our office coming up with ways to freak them out.” 

I think it’s time to reintroduce a bit of showmanship and unpredictability to retail; even if some do get freaked. They’ll recover from excitement but may not bounce back from boredom. 

What are your thoughts? Are major retailers playing it too safe?  . . . Or is maintaining order the Holy Grail?