Retailers are drowning a proverbial “sea of sameness” — or what academics might call homogenous retail agglomeration.
Too often, clusters of retail stores in shopping areas, strip centers, and indoor malls are notable primarily for their uniformity of brands, pricing, and experiences. Even the shopping centers themselves are homogenous, largely identical to similar shopping centers here, there, and everywhere.
It’s the practical application of the principle of minimum differentiation. Competitors tend to make themselves identical to appeal to the broadest segment of the population.
There are advantages, of course. One store doesn’t want to lose a sale to another so it makes sure to carry the same products as its competitors.
It works, to a point. But man has it ever made brick-and-mortar retailing boring. What’s the incentive to make a special trip to store A when store B — or just ordering online — will suffice?
And that’s the crux of today’s retail conundrum.
Cool Customers & Credit Cards
Long before we christened it “customer experience,” differentiation through unique products or services was a key part of business operations.
In the 1920s businesses started to set themselves apart by offering a state-of-the-art luxury, air conditioning. In 1924, J.L. Hudson in Detroit became the nation’s first department store to install air conditioning. A year later, air conditioning was installed at the Rivoli Theatre in Times Square.
As late as the 1960s businesses would boast about their summer customer experience with signs on doors and windows announcing “It’s Cool Inside.”
Businesses later turned from comfort to convenience to attract customers. Chalk it up to the first general purpose credit card, introduced in 1966.
This cleared the way for new payment options. With a few decades, credit cards became the preferred means of payment for travel, entertainment, and retail purchases — and businesses that failed to adapt by accepting credit were suddenly at significant disadvantages.
E-Commerce: Comfort Plus Convenience
More recently, comfort and convenience aligned with the dawn of e-commerce. What could be more comfortable or easy to do than ordering goods and services from your own home or business, any time of day?
E-commerce was novel, even exciting … at first.
But companies quickly discovered their customers wanted more — a holistic experience that spans interactions in the physical and digital world. This is when the concept of customer experience (CX) started gaining traction.
Yet the dilemma is clear. While CX alone can theoretically move the needle (as retailers such as Nordstrom show), it’s a tough row to hoe.
Clearly, retail CX should support a bigger, broader brand strategy — one that revolves around well-curated products and services that significantly distinguish the store from its competitors.
Taking the Risk to Differentiate
But as anyone who has ever done the simple act of dressing slightly out of the ordinary can attest, originality takes courage.
“Dare to be different” is inspiring on a poster, but intimidating in practice.
And even the biggest, best-known, well-financed brands put their reputations on the line when they deviate from expectations. Look at the flak Apple generated when it introduced EarPods last year. Even now, the reaction is mixed.
As Dan Grabham, the editor of T3.com, wrote in a recent review, “We love them but we keep catching people keep looking at us. Partly that’s curiosity, of course, but we couldn’t shake the feeling it was because they look so damn weird.”
Weird isn’t always wonderful, except perhaps in Austin. But even there you can make the case that weird is the norm — and anyone acting conventional would be the odd one out.
Retailers: ‘Mix It Up’
So where does that leave today’s retailers?
As anxiety provoking as it sounds, now is the time to step boldly where fewer retailers have gone before.
Mix things up on your product shelves. Introduce products or services from companies that aren’t yet household names. Take a chance on local products. Have a revolving section of limited selections from new, emerging designers or manufacturers.
Give customers a reason to travel to your store. And then wow them with an experience that will keep them coming back.