Owing to what I consider the unfathomable mysteries of consumer taste, I’ve never wanted to get involved in retail (or at least trend-driven retail, which is where all the newsmakers are). Marketing – perception – is an important factor in the sale of anything, but its importance does vary in degree. There are some products that are purchased mainly for their utility or convenience, and for which perception matters little: roofing nails, gas station bottled water, generic aspirin. And there are other things which sell (or do not) for almost entirely reasons of perception: art, fashion, entertainment. On this end of the spectrum I am out of my league; I have no knack for predicting when and why pants with extra holes added will become popular, or when people will finally stop rewarding comic book to movie conversions more than original stories.
Nevertheless I enjoyed reading The Wall Street Journal’s profile of the defiant Leslie Wexner, who continues opening retail stores in malls and is talking about peak smart phone use. I like his long-term perspective; I like his candid admission that he missed the trends that powered several rivals (Nike, Under Armor, Lululemon). I want him to be right, because he’s the contrarian underdog.
Yet every king is mortal and every empire crumbles. Several of Wexner’s theories, as presented in the Journal, seem potentially misapplied.
“‘It’s the merchandise, stupid,’ he often tells people” does not entirely jive with “‘If the store environment is exciting,’ he says, ‘I’m convinced people want to go to the store.'” The two statements can be reconciles with textbook branding – the brand must be carried through the product and the store environment. Boilerplate branding stuff. But what’s not in his favor is that the mall itself throws shade on the brand experience. The mall has come to mean consumerism, and nobody is a consumer; just ask them. Consumers are ugly gross people who too much – eat too much, shop too much, waste too much. I and all my friends are discerning people of good taste and proportion.
Of course, I and all my friends do indeed consume. But “naked,” guilty consumerism is done privately, online, or hurriedly, as the gas station or fast food drive through. Mere consumption is less and less a thing we would invite our friends to join in. Wexner is certainly right in saying that “people want to be with other people,” but that’s not the same as saying that people want to go to malls; there are bars, cafes, coffee shops, gyms, yoga studios, and so on. There are Apple stores; Apple is very much a brand with which you can signal your social credentials. Nobody would be embarrassed to Be Seen in an Apple store! (Well, some people would; but there is no universal brand.)
The death of the mall has probably been exaggerated, and the death of the physical store certainly has; and probably so has the hardship of a company that has “six times the share of the next closest rival.” Wexner’s doing all right so far. But what about the future? For all that the desire for companionship, for the presence of other people, is a human constant that Wexner can rely on, the expression of that desire is vulnerable to subversion. When we are offered more choices, we have less in common, because we choose differently; when there are more places to shop, the places that we want to shop overlap less with the choices of our friends. And when it is easy to share we are less willing to sacrifice for the purpose of sharing; we can take the edge off our need to share through Instagram, and then it doesn’t seem quite worth it to drive out for a meet-up. Is Instagram “the same” as meeting in person? No. Is it as fulfilling, as emotionally rich? No. But our appetites can be diverted by superficial satisfaction.
So how might one capitalize on the valid points of Mr. Wexner, without his uncompromising dismissal of contemporary culture?
If indeed our appetites can be conned, by fast food and TV drama and social media friends, then the canny move is to keep the con going. There certainly can be a social aspect to shopping, particularly if the items being shopped are perceived as being “worthy” of patronage, of adoption (not consumption!). Victoria’s Secret is, or was, such a brand. What if you could take your friends along?
The key here is that the user feel that they are in control of how and with whom their experience is shared. Shopping malls as they have always existed are public; so are movie theaters. “Social media” began as online cliques, evolved rapidly into online public space, and is now finding its way back toward cliques. Curated publicity, or the perception of it; privately public.
Imagine a spacious dressing room with a secure door and cameras at several angles – cameras you as the customer control. You turn them on and off as you please and, crucially, you can share the camera view with whomever you please. Your Instagram friends, your Snapchat friends, your Whisper friends. The camera feed is secured; the security mechanism would likely be a practical use of the faddish blockchain (digital currency) technology. A screen in the room shows you the names of everyone who is watching (and their faces, if they choose to video link).
This is so far outside my own preferences that I almost cringe to write it – and yet still I think it has enough resonance with the spirit of our age that it may almost be inevitable. It is practical for those people who already seek input from others (wives, girlfriends, shopping buddies, mothers or otherwise). And it is “social” in the modern sense of the word — sensational, titillating, intimate and fleeting, meaningless and private. We keep hearing about people who have done things with their phones or with their social medai accounts that they somehow imagine to be entirely private. In factual terms this is an error; but in marketing terms, it is a marketable perception.
With a little further technological development — not truly ready today, but not so far off — the article of clothing being worn could be modified in real time with virtual augmentation, changing the color, adding a hypothesized accessory, perhaps on suggestion from the audience. It is shopping with friends, sharing the experience, even if those friends are away chasing their own choice on the menu of unlimited uniquity.
Would I set up a store like this? No. Nor I have I patronized a Victoria’s Secret store, no do I expect to do so. But not everyone in the world buys what I buy or likes what I like.
Would I set up a store like this if I wanted to succeed in fashion retail? Yes.