The world of retail was rattled last week by the closure of 900 US and UK stores of Toys R Us, as a prelude to bankruptcy. Many reasons have been touted for this avoidable debacle but the largest culprit is certainly the inability to create an attractive experience, chiefly in-store, that diverted customers to both online as well as small outlets. Which leads to the larger point that brick-and-mortar retailers must urgently invest in a distinctive Destination Strategy, where the quality of experience must exceed the efficiency of transaction.
The master of this game is most certainly IKEA, which considers its brick-and-mortar outlet to be nothing short of a family entertainment zone, from play areas to cafeterias and immersive shopping areas. Which definitely explains why in terms of forging a powerful relationship, this brand does a better job than peers, an insurance policy of sorts against customer attrition. So delightful is the touch-and-feel repertoire that not even the most advanced online technology cannot expect to surpass it, the Swedish meat balls clearly a delightful adhesive for this engagement. Starbucks is a fine specimen of a desirable environment taking off the pressure for superior product delivery, everybody considers the coffee to be inferior, while TGIF focusses on a unique interaction just as Bukhara employs certain rituals to ensure charm.
A major reason why the traditional mom-and-pop store is still successful is once again the emotion of the destination, the ability to forge a conversation with a knowledgeable and affectionate human being eminently trustworthy. Byloom in Calcutta placed in the old mansion with a retro café does this well while Fabindia in Mumbai has reputedly built in experience values with deliberate thought. Another notable international example is Hamley’s which is particularly stringent in infusing interactive character scaled up as per size of location, the two extremes in India being the Lower Parel outlet and the Indira Gandhi International Airport store.
A quick survey of the large retail chains in India, from Spencer’s to Pantaloons to Shoppers Stop or Lifestyle, certainly misses a trick in building a distinctive experience, appearing merely as aggregators of brands in a common physical area, truly dangerous in this deeply competitive world. As a result, the difference between online shopping and offline is negligible even within the brick-and-mortar world, one cannot differentiate between brands in terms of uniqueness. The same is disappointingly true across sectors including children’s amusement zones, at least four in Gurgaon which look and feel the same, as well as eateries, this game understood only by pure heritage establishments and the odd super-specialty. Urgently required is the Destination Strategy built on the planks of Product Interactions, Human Engagement, Emotional Adhesives and Value-Additions. All of the above to be built on a base of sustainability, scalability, convenience and innovation working in tandem to amplify the value proposition of the brand.
Product Interactions are clearly connected to the way the demonstration and trial, where applicable, are conducted and how conducive they are for forming a judgement. A sari store which displays ware as draped mannequins where the customer can slip in and watch the reflection will be appropriate while a kid store where every item on sale is laid out like a play area will be definitely different. Human Engagement is an eminently achievable point of difference, where the customers can be advised either knowledgeably or effusively. Shopping assistants at Spencer’s who are already armed with your list via a special application can receive the customer at the point of entry and create seamless happiness with a dash of advisory. Emotional Adhesives include music, lighting and other feel-good gestures that makes shopping a differentiated joy. Imagine a Shopper’s Stop being renowned for a special music ensemble or live acts which makes a buyer feel great and not just welcome as a transaction. Value-Additions include any tangible feature that makes the destination attractive as a hang-out zone from the perspective of a family. Lifestyle can thus invest in a cafeteria that is memorable or even a Grooming Zone that will make the location immensely desirable beyond shopping.
Not investing in a Destination Strategy spelt doom for Toys R Us and that can well be the case for many formidable peers who are currently callous about this aspect. If approached intelligently, this can not just become a point of difference but at its very foundation, a tool for survival vis-à-vis the e-commerce world. Everybody in the business of real retail needs to apply mind and body to act immediately else the business may head towards an unprofitable destination.
(ShivajiDasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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