The retail experience – don’t ignore the details.

They say it’s the little things that make a difference. That attention to detail that elevates an interaction and makes it more meaningful. What’s true in life is true in retail, too.

I was recently stuck at LaGuardia. Ground delay. Shocking, I know. We were fortunate enough to pass the time in the American Airlines Admiral’s Club., Aside from drinking free cocktails and eating the cheese cubes, we did what all good consumers do in their spare time – surfed our phones.

My girlfriend visited one of her favorite sites, Mark and Graham (owned by Williams-Sonoma). She wasn’t shopping out of a specific need need, well, at least I didn’t think so. As she shopped, one detail she mentioned got me thinking: every delivery you receive from Mark and Graham is gift wrapped. Cool. I realize you can opt for giftwrapping via other online merchants, too. But think of extra touch Mark and Graham have taken in gift wrapping every one of its orders. You can even view a video of what it looks like here.  It’s a small detail, but it goes a long way. What lesson can retailers take from this little touch?

It’s the experience, stupid

Retail has become all about the experience, and not simply the act of acquiring more “stuff.” Whether that experience is linked to a store like a Cabela’s, with its aquariums and mock mountains, or a Nordstrom, complete with everything from hair salons to champagne bars, or even Restoration Hardware, some of which feature high-end pizza restaurants,  it’s an added touch that caters directly to those retailers’ biggest fans – their customers. Experience isn’t limited to online or brick and mortar – it’s about how customers perceive and interact with the brand in all channels. Do you have a good online ordering experience? How is the delivery and what about returns? Are your stores staffed by brand ambassadors? Can your supply chain deliver a personalized experience wherever the customer chooses to engage? All these aspects go into the consumer’s experience with the brand. A simple touch like gift wrapping each order is Mark and Graham’s way of making their customer feel special. Receiving a package in the mail is part of the excitement of ordering online.It’s a pseudo gift, even when the item is for the person who ordered it. If shoppers aren’t going to go to a physical location to acquire the product, the box it ships in is the only way to extend a brand’s experience to them. Make it count. Make that customer feel special.


I realize wrapping an item you ordered, with the same wrapping paper for all orders, is not very personal. However, retailers need a starting point. For Mark and Graham, gift wrapping is the beginning; it’s a personalized touch, albeit at mass scale. But personalization has to start somewhere. If the right systems and access to information, perhaps a next step is personalized messages in each package. Maybe it’s a special offer, or something tied to a big day or an event – we already see this with many retailers who send birthday promotions. But could savvy retailers start adding personalized messages that aren’t simply birthday coupons? A customer has ordered some sailing gear from Helly Hansen, maybe in the package Helly Hansen includes personalized advice or a message about the best sailing based on the customer’s location. Restoration Hardware could provide tips on the right types of anchors to secure that new shelf to the wall. Macy’s could tell you which pocket square to pair with the new shirt. The opportunities are endless.

These days are tough for brands and retailers (I know, Capt. Obvious). But they need to look at the likes of Mark and Graham, and focus on the little details that can differentiate themselves in a challenging market. Of course, you still need to have competitive prices, the right inventory and all the other key aspects that consumers expect. But even the smallest details make a difference, elevating the experience beyond a simple transaction into something special customers will remember. And that will keep them coming back.


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Amazon moves into the Kombucha aisle in a big way

One day we might look back at June 16, 2017, as the day the retail and grocery business changed forever. It was, after all, the day Amazon decided to stop dipping its toes in brick and mortar retail and instead dive in head-first with the announced $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Market. While the news itself made a big splash with the public, the overall ripple effect could send waves of change across the industry for years to come.

Just take out the Citizens Banks!

The deal gives Amazon a network of 450 Whole Foods stores in the U.S., Canada, and United Kingdom, many of which are located in affluent neighborhoods and come with a loyal customer base willing to pay a premium for high-quality groceries. It also potentially extends the online retailer’s existing grocery service, Amazon Fresh into new markets while also broadening the assortment of products sold. And almost overnight, Amazon goes from a niche player to a national powerhouse in the $1.4 trillion grocery industry. Combined with Amazon’s well-established expertise in logistics, customer data, and pricing, Whole Foods could become a transformational force in brick-and-mortar as we know it.

So what does it all mean everyone else? Retailers and grocers continue to feel the pressure from shifting consumer habits, with many struggling just to stay relevant. Amazon’s new push into the physical world will likely add to the pressure. Here are five things to watch for as Amazon and Whole Foods move forward:

Flexible distribution

Your local Whole Foods likely won’t change into a massive Amazon warehouse and fulfillment center overnight. But there’s a good chance Amazon’s already thinking about how to leverage these strategically located stores (as well as Whole Foods’ existing network of distribution centers) to get products to customers faster and more efficiently than ever. Especially as the company looks to develop its Amazon Fresh service into a leader in the small, but growing online grocery space. Somewhere between Whole Foods’ in-store experience and Amazon Fresh’s online convenience lies the potential for great synergy – especially when it comes to giving more customers access to the whatever delivery method they prefer.

Experience matters

People don’t just buy products; they choose experiences. And the most successful retailers today understand that experience matters. Whole Foods is a long-time leader in bringing experiences to its stores. Whether it’s through in-store cafes, bakeries, cheese tastings, or coffee roasting, Whole Foods customers have come to expect an opportunity to see, taste, touch, and learn about many products before they buy them. That type of experience remains a tough solve for online-only food retailers. Whole Foods is an opportunity for Amazon to double-down on the ability for customers to experience new products and how to use them. Will it extend these experiences beyond just food products?


Jeff Bezos was one of the first to propose the idea of delivering orders to a physical location other than a customer’s home or office. Today Amazon Lockers are commonplace, giving customers a secure place to receive orders whenever and wherever it’s most convenient for them. Having an additional 450 Amazon-owned locations could extend the service even further, providing new real estate for deliveries, returns or other shipping services that can’t simply be provided in the back of a 7-Eleven. While there’s no public plans for Amazon shipping centers, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

An industry wake-up call

Amazon’s big jump into the grocery business splashes water on the faces of just about everyone else in the industry. Now it’s up to grocers to innovate and refresh their business models in order to stay afloat. Will it lead to traditional grocers adopting more online shopping and deliveries? Will they be able to compete on more than just price? Clearly, customers will choose the experience that suits them best. They ultimately vote with their wallets. It’s up to grocers to gain a better understanding of all the data behind customer interactions, to be able to match pricing and promotions to a customer’s preferences, and to create experiences that delight and reward shoppers for their loyalty.

The landscape is changing fast – don’t get left behind

It used to be that Amazon was the leader in online shopping and services and Walmart was the king of physical retail. But now Amazon is building bookstores and could soon have its own massive grocery chain, while Walmart gets more aggressive online. Somewhat lost in all the news about Amazon and Whole Foods was Walmart’s announced acquisition of online fashion brand, Bonobos – not to mention its recent purchase of Amazon competitor In their quest to be the primary destination for consumers of all walks of life, both Amazon and Walmart have begun aggressively stepping on each other’s turf.

It’s further evidence the lines have blurred between physical and online retail and there’s no single path to success. It’s no longer just about stores or about prices, delivery speed or convenience. Those who succeed will do so by finding the right mix of products, prices, and technology to surround the customer with consistent, seamless, personalized experiences.

Will drone-delivered, organic kombucha come next? Maybe not tomorrow. But all signs point to the dawning of a new age of retail. And it’s only just begun to get interesting.

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Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the store – Flexible fulfillment is a homerun for retail’s biggest fans

Unlike most other sporting arenas, baseball stadiums truly have a soul of their own. Each ballpark has different dimensions. The fans, the surroundings, and the amenities make the experience unique to each and every team. And while no two games or stadiums are alike, watching America’s pastime in-person lends itself to a different, more universal kind of sport: retail.

With each new stadium visit, I like to come away with a little memento for myself or for my friends. Souvenirs are as much a part of the game as hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, and the seventh-inning stretch. And my recent visit to Atlanta’s SunTrust Park was no exception – especially since it just opened this year. Indeed, I had high expectations for the new home of the Braves.


The Braves new ballpark…what was wrong with the old one?


Like a good consumer, I made sure to visit the Braves Clubhouse Store, the stadium’s featured concession for all things Atlanta baseball. And while I left with a bag full of merchandise, the experience was no home run. My path to purchase within the store was a microcosm of the challenges created at the intersection of consumer demands and retailer capabilities.

My experience isn’t that unusual. We entered the store in search of two Bartolo Colon t-shirts for friends – one male, one female. Simple enough. Colon is a popular pitcher who’s achieved something of a cult following among baseball fans, in part because of his size (big), age (old), velocity (slow), hitting ability (poor), and the unrestrained joy he brings each time he takes the mound. He neither looks nor acts the part of a player who’s won 235 games across more than 20 baseball seasons. And that’s a big reason why fans love Bartolo so much; he’s one of us.

The team store is usually the best place to find authentic merchandise on game day. And I quickly spotted the women’s version of the shirt as soon as I entered the store. Surely I’d find one sized medium. But it wasn’t meant to be. All the shirts on the rack were at least one size too large. I asked for help and a friendly store employee went to search for the elusive medium shirt in the storage room. She came back empty handed. The week’s deliveries had not yet arrived, but if we came back in a few days the shirt should be back in stock.  We moved on to the men’s section, where there were two different shirts to choose from. So I dug in, determined to find an extra-large for my friend and make the shopping trip at least partly successful. But it wasn’t meant to be. Once again it felt like I unfolded the entire stack of shirts, only to find the right size was out of stock.  A store associate reminded us the shipment hadn’t arrived and that we should check again later. I ended up buying a shirt in large along with some other gear, but didn’t leave fully satisfied with the experience. It was a reminder of the ongoing issues retail must address in order to compete in today’s world of ambient commerce.

Let’s break it down.

  • Lack of inventory mix: There were clear issues with getting the right size mix for a popular shirt. Neither the men’s nor the women’s version of the Bartolo Colon shirt had much in the way of size availability. Though it seems simple, having the right mix of product sizes and colors is one of the biggest challenges in fashion and retail. It leads to lost sales. Retail operations such as the Braves’ Clubhouse, where sales are based around finite and well-defined experiences, could benefit from postponement. Rather than stocking a set number of finished products, they could turn to in-store screen printing as a means of applying any name onto one of several standard blank shirts during the game. The retailer would still want to have a mix of standard products on the shelves, but the added ability to print on-demand would help buffer against stock outs and give customers the product they truly want. It would also help ensure the store’s ready the next time another folk hero like Bartolo Colon captures the hearts of fans.
  • Limited inventory visibility: Knowing what’s on the shelf and what’s still in storage still gives most retailers a headache. It’s time consuming and inefficient for staff to sift through boxes while a customer waits in the store. Technologies like RFID and the Internet of Things help retailers bring greater visibility to the store Imagine how much more productive staff would be if they could easily tell what items are in stock and where they’re located – down to the exact spot on a shelf or box in the back room. Now imagine if this visibility extended to all the stores within the stadium (or any given region). If you could see across all that inventory, if your staff was empowered to find it, make the sale, and have it delivered to the customer, how much happier would that customer be?
  • Rigid fulfillment: The act of fulfilling a customer order remains the moment of truth for retailers. In my example, the Braves’ retail had an opportunity to meet our needs at the ballpark, but lost out on a bigger sale because the inventory wasn’t there. But it’s not as though the store is the only way to deliver goods. If the lack of available inventory was strike one, strike two happened the moment the associate asked me to come back at a later date. But the Braves hadn’t struck out just yet. Say the team could locate the shirt at another in-stadium store? That would have been a base hit. Or if they had sold me the shirt in-store and had it delivered to my home address? Run-scoring double. But the lack of alternative fulfillment methods was a big swing and a miss. Batter out!

Now, I know one experience at a ballpark hardly represents the entire world of brick-and-mortar retail. The Atlanta Braves are in the business of playing baseball. Selling products and merchandise isn’t quite the same priority as winning a World Series. But if you can’t win on the field, the least you could do is service your fans, and provide the kind of novel retail experiences that might help you win a few more.  Whether it’s at the ballpark, the mall, or on a mobile app, retailers need to understand that it’s a big playing field. If the fans aren’t happy, there isn’t much stopping them from choosing another team.

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Walmart loads for bear

How do you extend your business to compete with always-on world of ecommerce? For one retail giant, the answer appears to be if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or buy them, at least.

The latest rumors have Walmart in advanced talks to acquire Bonobos, the well-loved fashion brand that built its reputation on stylish men’s essentials. An industry pioneer, Bonobos has carved out a niche in the retail and fashion space, both through its catalog, eCommerce site and boutique stores.

Bonobos’ stores are a prime example of how brick and mortar retail is shifting. While you can purchase some products in-store, the space is really used to provide experiences for the customer, immersing shoppers in the brand’s curated world view and easing the anxiety that often comes with making sure the clothes you buy online actually fit. From the variety of items on display to the personalized service the staff provides in guiding customers through the buying process, the experience is what sets Bonobos stores apart. Coupled with traditional retail practices such as colorful, magazine style catalogs, a robust eCommerce site, and aggressive email marketing efforts, it’s the model of the modern retail experience. And it makes Bonobos an intriguing target for Walmart.

Walmart is well known for its always low prices, its robust supply chain, and its disciplined approach to supplier relations. So why would the world’s largest retailer want to change? Walmart has long attempted to build out its own eCommerce footprint. Despite those efforts, it’s still perceived as something of an also-ran against some of the internet-first retail giants in terms of products, services, and user experience. One could consider Walmart’s 2016 purchase of as a sign the company finally recognized its shortcomings in that space. The model is an interesting one, in part because it allows the consumer to adjust the price of products either by bundling higher quantities or varieties of products into one order, or opting into- or out of a variety of associated services. For instance, customers can determine shipping costs based on how quickly they want to receive a product, they can forego the option of free returns, and prices generally drop with each item added to a single order. Tied into the vast network Walmart already has with major players in consumer products, it may prove to a long-term winner for the Bentonville firm.

Adding other eCommerce players such as ModCloth, Moosejaw, ShoeBuy, and now potentially Bonobos, seems to signify Walmart recognizes its current business model needs to evolve in order to compete in today’s retail environment. But this strategy also has Walmart walking a fine line. For instance, Bonobos and ModCloth built their brands largely by being what big box retailers are not. Their value is not derived solely through products, but also the experience they’ve been able to create. As men become more attuned to their styles and grooming needs (just looks at the rise of men’s shaving services), or women look for authentic clothes for any body type, retailers will need to address and target these segments in a much more precise manner. There’s a reason consumers flock to these emerging brands – retail is no longer a one-size-fits-all industry.

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Moneyball and retail: How to play smarter with big data

With the start of another baseball season upon us, I can’t stop thinking about Moneyball—the story of the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and his revolutionary method for recruiting and evaluating Major League Baseball players.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book (or subsequent movie starring none other than Brad Pitt), Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game takes a close look at how MLB’s veteran scouts, talent evaluators, team owners, and general managers in the early 2000s relied only on traditional methods and their gut instincts to evaluate and choose players.

Recruits at this time were viewed through a lens that leaned solely on superficial statistics like number of home runs, RBIs, or even a player’s appearance. Players with the “right” attributes commanded large salaries like those of the New York Yankees—money which small-market teams like the Oakland A’s simply could not afford.

To win at this “unfair game,” Billy Beane spearheaded an effort to dive deeper into the player data he already had at his fingertips—thereby uncovering the hidden value of players who were not identified as assets right off the bat. Today, the majority of MLB teams employ some form of deep statistical analysis, and recruiting on gut instinct alone is virtually unheard of.
What does Moneyball have to do with retail?

Much like Billy Beane, today’s retailers may feel they are playing in an “unfair game.” To many, competing with the New York Yankees of retail seems impossible.

Moneyball taught the baseball industry to use data to focus on individual players and the (sometimes hidden) value they could bring to a team at large. And while retailers may not have the resources, logistics, and of course, money, to compete with the behemoths of the industry, they do have the data at the fingertips to succeed by playing smarter.

If retailers dive into their data and focus on each individual consumer, as well as their products and services, there’s an opportunity to uncover hidden value in the data associated with the consumer and the products they seek—just like Billy Beane did with the Oakland A’s.

So why should retailers revisit this well-worn story?

  • It’s the customer, stupid. Most pundits and practitioners would agree that the retail dynamic has shifted. The consumer now has the bulk of the power. But the consumer is also willing to provide retailers with a wealth of data and information. Much like Billy Beane was able to, can retailers leverage this data to uncover more about their consumers? Who of them are really profitable? How are they interacting with the brand? And what do the answers to those questions mean for long-term profitability in a highly-competitive industry?
  • Efficiencies in the supply chain. How well is supplier A performing compared to supplier B? Are there metrics that can be measured to gain greater supply chain efficiencies? How about distribution networks, warehouses, and stores? Retailers need to be open to measuring new (and maybe counterintuitive) KPIs across their operations. By seeking data that might uncover new ways to measure and improve operations, retailers can get ahead of the game.
  • Product evaluations. Think of each product as a baseball player. While some products are consistently the highest performers, is it possible there are other equally profitable products sitting on the bench? By analyzing assortment under a data-focused microscope, retailers have the power to understand all the costs and opportunities associated with each product and mix, and identify the hidden gems lurking in their assortments. What else could be uncovered that may have been otherwise viewed as a retail truism?

None of these insights are especially earth-shattering, but what is surprising is how often retailers neglect them. The data is there. The insights are at our fingertips. It’s not about amassing more data, it’s about using the data we have to make smarter, more informed decisions. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s didn’t discover a wealth of new player data—they looked at the information that was available to every other team and asked different questions of it. If retailers want to compete with retail Goliaths, it’s time they start asking different questions, too.

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The Amazon effect…

When I started my “adulting” journey, one of my first jobs was at Forrester Research. It was during the end of the last century, wow I’m getting old, and I had a front row seat to the rise of the internet. Those were the days of irrational exuberance both in the stock market but also with technology. While many of the companies that rode this wave to fleeting stardom, remember the likes of where you could order anything for your gold fish, basset hound or pet ferret needed from a sock puppet? Or Webvan which was ahead of its time when it came to the online grocery game. Even a surgeon general Dr C Everett Kopp dipped his toes into the dot com game creating which tried to make a go at the online medical space. One company that was born of this time but has continued to flourish is Amazon.

Why is this man smiling?

The pioneering eCommerce player who started by selling books and CDs is now a market shaper. Their success was in large part built on seizing on the consumers’ growing hunger and desire to access shopping via the internet, keeping the eCommerce player’s cost down since they bypassed the expensive cost associated with retail real estate. But fast forward to 2017, and it appears that Amazon is now going to be aggressively looking to open physical stores. Gasp. What???

According to a piece in Seeking Alpha, it is rumored that Amazon will be targeting the opening of close to 2000 stores. Supposedly up to 400 bookstores, but also appliance stores, furniture, electronics and others. No small feat to say the least. So why is Amazon jumping into the brick and mortar game when so many other retailers are desperately trying to prune their store trees? The reality is Amazon realizes, as do other pure eCommerce players such as Warby Parker and Bonobos, the experience you can provide the consumer online and via a mobile device has limitations. Consumer expectations have evolved to the point where price is no longer the only driver. They know they can get a competitive price at the touch of their fingers. What they are now looking for are the experiences retailers bring to the table. Why do I shop and give my money to retailer A and not retailer B? Experience plays a large part in that decision making. One simply has to look at retailers such as Urban Outfitters that are looking to add experiences such as enjoying a fresh slice of pizza to the in store shopping experience. Or Restoration Hardware that are turning stores into true show rooms – allowing the customer to have a true experience with furniture and home goods. We already know high end retailers such as Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom offer such experiences as cafes, salons, personal shoppers to name a few. The shopping experience becomes complimentary to the acquisition of a product.

For Amazon it makes sense to get themselves into the physical store game. First don’t think of Amazon stores as traditional sites to simply buy items. While that will be a major component of the stores, think of them as multi discipline assets. Buying product, picking up product purchased online, returning goods at the store, receiving training or services from the store, even distributed warehousing capacity for Amazon. Second, even if the stores lose money, expect Amazon to push for these stores to be nodes within their digital footprint. Points of data and behavior gathering. How much information can Amazon gather from their interactions with customers in these locations? Finally, is this a marketing gamble for Bezos and company? As certain brick and mortar players struggle with their footprint, is Amazon announcing it will be opening up stores a message to the world declaring that they truly are looking to be the dominant retail giant for years to come?

As a recent headline article in the Economist points out, Bezos and Amazon are trying to create the ultimate customer centric company, but they are also aware that other players are looking to sell something Amazon doesn’t have – that is the experience of physical retail. Traditional retailers still have a card to play, but they better be laser focused on how to differentiate through this channel, because Amazon isn’t standing still.

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LL Bean to move away from legacy of customer care king?

LL Bean, a privately owned outdoor clothing and equipment company, has always prided itself not only in well crafted products but in having extremely generous policies when it comes to exchanges. The Maine based retailer had a “no questions” asked return policy…. with no time limits. Bought a pair of their outdoor boots in 1983, you can exchange them today. This was a brilliant policy of the company. It demonstrates outrageous customer care, no worries about receipts or time constraints. It implicitly told the market that they were confident in their product. That LL Bean was confident that the design, workmanship and supply chain was robust to create products that would last. Hopefully the vast majority of customers would never need to return their items!th

Unfortunately, it appears that this policy might no longer be feasible, read article here. Why? LL Bean, similar to a plethora of other retailers are undergoing a change when it comes to how they manage their business. With their business faces a number of daunting headwinds, LL Bean is trying to find ways to keep their employees happy, continue to produce quality merchandise and compete in an ever chaotic world. But for a company that was a pioneer in focusing on the customer, it would be ashamed to see them cut the very service that more retailers are starting to slowly come around to.

Is this move also an indication of a greater issue that will grow in the retail supply chain? That of returns and reverse logistics? Retailers from LL Bean to Walmart have a growing area they must focus on – what happens to product post sale. By some estimates up to 12% of retail inventory is in the returns channel at any moment, for pure play eCommerce retailers that number might be as high as 50%.[1] That represents a tremendous opportunity and challenge for retailers. They have to plan for possibly having to re-slot some of this inventory, inspect and possibly refurbish product, and then possibly having to discount the product if it comes back too late in a season. I have seen some examples of retailers not even wanting a customer to return the item, they just refund the price and tell them to keep it. Costs too much to re-slot. It is also an opportunity. Can retailers become more sophisticated with their returns channels? Actually reallocated that inventory dynamically to go to other consumers rather than back to a distribution center? Can the returns channel as a whole become a discount/outlet styled extension for the retailers? Have the inventory in the returns channel create an after market for goods. Rather than taking them back into their normal supply chain, allow the purchase of this inventory to take place in a secondary market.

This future state for retail is possible but starts with greater visibility into the overall network, a network that must extend beyond the customer purchase. But retailer networks need to catch up, otherwise we will see more retailers putting a handbrake on customer service levels like LL Bean is rumored to be contemplating. That would be unfortunate.


[1] According to UPS presentation at RILA 2017.

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