Move Along; Nothing to See Here

It might have been on your mind recently as you’ve gone about your retail store visits. After all, for all of the talk of retail transformation (guilty as charged), most retailers’ store environments pretty much look the same way they did months ago. So far, the only physical evidence of J.C. Penney’s promised metamorphosis under Ron Johnson’s leadership, for example, is a new logo, subtle changes to pricing signage (“best” means “don’t think it will get any cheaper than this”) and some colored squares hanging near the entrance to evoke Penney’s new “fair and square” pricing scheme. For Target, the Shops at Target concept included the addition of new brands, but anyone expecting environment-altering shop-in-shops will be disappointed.

Mass, home improvement, drug, dollar…pick a tier, any tier, and the changes you’ll see are likely to be incremental rather than monumental. Is retail really moving at a dizzying pace or are we watching grass grow? While many of the biggest innovations occurring in retail could be missed if you blinked, and some are entirely beyond observable, this doesn’t make them any less transformational.

Walmart has just launched its second character-based augmented reality app, this time to promote the Sony Pictures release of The Amazing Spider-Man, which hits theaters on July 3rd. The Spider-Man app already one-ups the Avengers version launched just last month, by incorporating sound effects and moving characters who engage in combat. The special effects are triggered by displays and products located throughout Walmart stores, and include a bundled comic book and “sneak peak” combo pack that features film and video game snippets and cross-promotions for Spider-Man-themed products. Recently, the price transparency-enabling combination of mobile apps and retail has brought on fear and trembling for retailers and brands, but sunnier possibilities for driving in-store brand engagement are emerging, without the disruption of shoppers’ surroundings.

Retailers are executing a new wave of back-office efficiency initiatives that promise to make suppliers’ businesses more profitable in the process. Macy’s is the latest retailer to get serious about tying its stores more closely to its e-commerce operations. By the end of this year, 300 Macy’s stores are slated to have in-store e-commerce fulfillment capabilities, and its “search and send” service will enable store associates to look for out-of-stock items throughout the Macy’s system and have them shipped to a customer’s home. The movement toward pooled inventory promises to remove the “channel” barriers that had retailers and suppliers taking a margin hit on perfectly good merchandise that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After years of taking a bare-bones approach to in-store training and brand support, retailers such as Macy’s, Family Dollar and others have been investing in corporate sales associate training once again, and opening their doors to brand-initiated solutions as well. In my interview with Sony President and COO Phil Molyneux last week, he shared how Sony has deployed its new shop-front retail training and engagement push both in its corporate stores and in wholesale accounts. According to Molyneux, the program was developed through deep collaboration with Sony’s retail partners over a couple of years, and its retail customers have been quite receptive throughout the process.

What you see isn’t always what you get in retail these days – and that can be great news.

This article originally ran on the International Licensing Industry Merchandiser's Association (LIMA) website.