I was in New York recently for a conference. It was called TREX: Total Retail Experience. We listened to lectures, walked the slightly scary floor of the trade show, and toured some flagship stores in Times Square and Midtown. Good job, retail industry, for pulling off this ambitious event right in the middle of the holiday season.
But after watching presentations about "immersive retail experiences" and undergoing severe sensory overload in stores like Toys 'R Us and the Hershey Store, I needed a serious change of pace.
I started walking around the city, reflecting on my trip and my industry. What is retail, really? It's not entertainment, and it's not education. It's not a giant staged production with lights and costumes and props. At its essence, retail is just people selling things to other people.
In the olden days, the people who sold were the same as the people who made. The potter could sell his pots with genuine enthusiasm because he made them yesterday. Can you imagine how strange it would be if you walked into Urban Outfitters, and the salesgirl said "Yeah, those buttons came from mother-of-pearl that I gathered on the beach last week. Sewing them onto the shirt was a real bitch."
This is ridiculous. The people who work in stores have no ownership. How can you blame them? This Hershey "factory worker" is not actually making candy by turning a crank! Yet she has to dress up like a Doozer, poor thing.
So I'm still walking, thinking about how far retail has come from its humble beginnings, when I happen upon a street fair. Walking past booths, I notice how eager the merchants are to show you their stuff. Sure, these people need your business more than Urban Outfitters does. But there's also a genuine desire to engage people, share your latest creations and hopefully receive the ultimate compliment - a purchase.
There was one booth that was full of shawls. Floor to ceiling. The woman sitting at the table looked lonely. As I approached her, she jumped up and started putting on a shawl - presumably to show me how it looked. It was the most genuine expression of salesmanship I have ever encountered. I wanted to buy a shawl from this woman, I really did.
The photo that turned out speaks volumes. Whether she made the shawls or not, this woman clearly loves them. So much that she literally immerses herself in them. She takes full ownership of her product, and it's inspiring.
Retail can be "immersive" in the sense that the store immerses the customer. Stores surround customers with their version of the world, and employees are left to simply play along. I saw this a lot on the TREX trip, and it's getting old.
Instead, retail can be "immersive" in the sense that employees are immersed in the products. They use them, wear them, eat them, like them and care about them. This type of immersion is a lot less tangible, a lot more difficult and lot more rewarding for the shopper.
So retailers: instead of paying the next design firm to put a giant brontosaurus in your toy department, go out and hire a dinosaur fanatic. It'll be worth it, I promise.