On Thanksgiving Day, I witnessed a marketing hijack in the midst of all the Black Thursday…err…Friday hoopla. The TV was tuned in to NBC for the 89th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and my wife, bored with the lame lip-sync skills of soon-to-be-forgotten pop stars, started flipping around and found another parade broadcast. Not another parade, mind you. It was the same parade, just stripped of Broadway dance numbers and pop cameos; they chose instead to focus on the myriad floats, balloons and marching bands. Kind of like the parade I grew up with, actually.
It was billed simply, “The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS,” and it was sponsored, in part, by…J.C. Penney. Wow. I’d be hacked off if my iconic promotion showed up elsewhere, sponsored by one of my competitors. (Like anyone who grew up in America wouldn’t think “Macy’s.”) This wasn’t some municipal event like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade; rather, it was one of the most recognizable, effective marketing vehicles of the 20th-century. To me, it was lame of CBS to hijack the event for their own use and profit. This wasn’t some scrappy YouTube channel with snarky commentators, à la MST3K, speculating on what the Paddington Bear balloon might do in the woods. This was just corporate hardball: “Hey, it’s a free event. So sue us!”
Hijacking traditions and twisting them in new directions—the buzzword is “disruption”—is a hallmark of 21st century commerce. I understand that much about our culture is changing month by month. But a lot of the “new” directions are simply alternatives—not destinies—and ideas in competition try to shout each other down to win market share. Those who follow the many battles for hardware and software standards, or who now watch the many entries in the startup arena, know that neither the best idea nor the first one is the sure winner. When it comes to consumers’ buying habits, it’s not always changing in the way marketers would have us believe, or doing so as fast. Oh, it’s changing, but the path has many twists and turns.
Yet the marketers continue to push in the direction they want us to take, trying to hijack revenue, attention and activity. I saw countless ads over the Thanksgiving weekend (I will not call it “Black Friday Weekend” as some have. What’s next, “Bunny Sunday” instead of Easter?) that exhorted people to stay at home and shop online. Oooh! The same or better deals…no crowds…free shipping. One even smugly commented, “And, unlike stores, we’re always in stock!” The impression it gave was that all the smart, hip, thinking people are shopping on the Web, and only Neanderthals and drones still slog it out for bargains in meatspace. Let’s inject a dose of reality here, fresh from the data at census.gov/retail:
U.S. E-Commerce Sales as a Percentage of Retail Sales: 7.4 percent for Q3/15; 6.5 percent Q3/14.
Despite the millions of online orders and the steady, healthy growth of the online platform, more than 90 percent of U.S. retail sales still happen in stores. Further, even with all the hype about growth, that share grew less than one percentage point over the previous year. Sure, you can argue about specific product categories if you want, but I’m talking about the economy as a whole.
I’d have to say that most of us in retail storefronts still believe in the brick-and-mortar side of shopping, even though I’d speculate that most of us have also purchased something online. That’s the reality, as I see it. Both have their value. When you can buy everything from mouthwash to a car online, the model has certainly proved its viability. But, to me, it’s also harder: The amount of time spent finding and vetting the quality and security of an online source and its merchandise—or selecting the product to buy among the many choices, counterfeits and copycats—is a burden. The diligent can certainly do it. But I’ve watched many people buy “real bargains” across several product categories and end up disappointed, or even cheated, all because they believed they could get something for a song. In a store, you can see and touch the actual item you will buy, interact with store personnel and choose your form of payment. (Even the highly secure, non-invasive “cash” option is available.)
However, those of us who still believe in retail storefronts must also understand that the reasons 90 percent of business is done in stores are changing. There will always be a percentage of people who will never buy our products in a store. But the people who do come in—those who will help our stores survive—need more than products. They are looking for a shopping experience…a participant in the community…someone who can help them. We’re no longer the only dealer in town, the biggest store or the one with the farthest geographical reach. All the exclusives are gone. What are we doing for our target customers to keep them engaged, happy and playing?
“Shopping,” in its so-called traditional form, is tactile, social and immersive. We have both the opportunity and the need to differentiate ourselves in the way we present our stores, how we approach our customers and the ways we help them to make music. This has always been the case, but, today, it is more urgent and, often, it determines whether a store will remain viable.
Granted, some people won’t get it. They will attempt to pick your brain or blatantly showroom you; expect you to buy, fix or resell their eBay mistakes; and ask for repairs, loaners or parts for free. But we have always encountered these people; in the old days, they simply bought from a local competitor.
So, it’s a new year. It’s time to review our stores’ presentation, refresh our staff training and rededicate our businesses to serving our customers based on their needs, not on convenience or our prejudices. It’s a new year, and there is ample opportunity to inject something fresh into our stores. It needn’t be a full remodel or a big promotional push. Paint a wall. Boost your social media presence. Change some displays. But, in this new year, do something to gain positive attention.
Retail is, in part, theater. Put on a show.