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Smart Stores
Retailers need to be just as intelligent as their shoppers.

In recent years, many companies have positioned their products as “smart” — smartphones, smart foods, smart sneakers, smart apartments, and on and on. It’s a word everyone understands and most people respond to favorably.

Smart is also a good word to describe today’s shoppers and how they behave when they are shopping. Smart shoppers are telling retailers to give them what they want, where they want it, when they want it and at a price they’re willing to pay. Quality cannot suffer but neither can value.

Smart shoppers use multiple channels seamlessly, and if a product, retailer or website disappoints them, they quickly move on to a different one. They’re constantly in touch with one another — telephoning, texting, emailing, gathering on social networks and blogs — sharing their likes, dislikes, and shopper experiences at a speed most of us couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. Nor could we have imagined the power and influence personal reviews and recommendations would have in shaping other shoppers’ behavior and choices. Picture this scenario…

Watching her Apple TV, Sara sees a videogame system she might want to buy for her son. Using her iPad, she determines that Super Mega Retailer has the product, and it turns out that her cousin, Jane, is shopping there (she checked in on Foursquare). Sara asks her to find the item and Jane uses an interactive kiosk to locate it, along with two other videogame systems.

Using her iPhone, Jane takes pictures of the three products, texts the info back to Sara, and suggests she go online to research them. Within a few minutes, Sara decides on her choice and texts Jane, who then Q Scans the chosen product for best pricing and learns that Different Mega Retailer down the street is offering a coupon on it. Sara downloads the coupon onto her smartphone …

Okay, you get the idea: A purchase that just two years ago certainly would have gone to Super Mega Retailer today goes elsewhere, thanks to smart shoppers.

The “million dollar question” in this smart-shopper experience is: Where are the smart retailers? Where are the retailers that are purpose-based? That offer excellent customer service and experiences? That deliver the end benefits their shoppers want, when and where they want them, at prices they want to pay? Three of them are featured in the Hub Magazine's March/April 2012 roundtable discussion on the future of retail: Uniqlo, Abt Electronics, and Totsy.

Uniqlo provides exceptional apparel and accessories at reasonable prices because it is set up to mass-produce its own products. They have the ability to spot a fashion trend and then quickly adjust production accordingly. Because of this, Uniqlo can provide customers with the products they want, when they want them, at good prices.

Abt Electronics not only provides competitively priced high-tech products, but also goes the extra mile to provide one-of-a-kind customer service in a dazzling shopping environment. Thriving in a single, 37-acre retail location, Abt not only provides a smart shopping experience in its store but on its e-commerce website as well.

Totsy is a highly innovative flash-sale site focused on moms of children up to age eight. Its customers join by invitation or request and benefit from limited-time sales of parenting products with discounts of up to 70 percent off retail prices.

Another retailer that has proven successful by adapting to the demands of smart shoppers is Duane Reade, the largest drug store chain in New York City. Last year, Duane Reade responded to its shoppers’ needs for high-tech services and high-touch experiences with an “up market” focus. It built a 22,000 square-foot, 24-hour flagship store that offers exclusive services and amenities never before seen in any drugstore.

I visited the flagship store and found Duane Reade’s custom-designed, “virtual assistant” — a technological wizard. It uses holographic imaging and audio-visual technology to introduce many of the stores features. As I walked the aisles and multiple departments, I saw a “smart” model that could transform the way all drug stores do business.

The store brilliantly satisfies its customers’ needs with immediate, interactive options that engaged, intrigued and surprised me. There’s a doctor on the premises for urgent, affordable, quality heath care; a pharmacy powered by the Walgreen’s network that links all of its customers to its national database; an expanded beauty department that stocks boutique products and offers virtual makeovers, skin analysis, and 40 automatic fragrance samplers; and there are even separate nail and hair salons that sell branded, upscale products.

There’s a sushi station, a fresh-juice market, a Starbucks coffee and fresh bakery counter, a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that has 130 varieties of drinks and an expanded natural and organic fresh foods section that also sells wraps, sandwiches, and salads made daily. This smart retailer doesn’t just enhance the smart-shopper experience; it is recreating it.

Last, but not least, any discussion of smart retailers would be incomplete without including Apple. That lily has been gilded so many times I’ll limit my comments to one dynamic of the Apple experience that is especially illustrative of their genius: truly customized, smart, customer service.

Apple associates gauge the level of technical expertise of shoppers and then adjust their approach to working with them. When helping a highly tech-savvy shopper navigate the latest Apple product, the associate will engage in high-tech conversations and demonstrations. But put the same Apple product in the hands of a shopper with less technological muscle and the Apple associate will change the touch points of the experience to match the shopper’s level of understanding without condescension.

The Apple retail experience leaves both kinds of shoppers feeling valued and happy because they got the same smart technology and smart instructor, combined with positive responses that resonated with them.

As widely reported, Ron Johnson, the Apple store mastermind, recently joined JC Penney as CEO. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Ron said that Apple’s Genius Bar was just as much about repairing customer relationships as fixing computers.
“A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise,” he told HBR. “It’s got to help people enrich their lives.” It will be very interesting to watch JC Penney’s transition under his smart (genius?) leadership.

Being “smart” may seem easy for retailers: give shoppers what they are looking for — convenience, personalization and customization of products and experiences that meet their needs. However, the game keeps changing. Technology keeps changing, product and service innovation is rampant, while the speed of communication and connection is exponential as social vehicles become mainstream.

Those who win will find a way to overcome traditional barriers of speed-to-market with everything from products to marketing messages to tools that aid the shopper. Winners will be those who set the right vision and make it a reality. They will be willing to take calculated risks, learn and move onto the next evolution of a dynamic, relevant and engaging retail experience. It doesn’t get much smarter than that.

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SIDEBAR: Smart shoppers deserve smart retailers.



SHARON LOVE is chief executive officer of TPN, a brand-centric retail marketing agency with clients including 7-Eleven, Bank of America, The Clorox Company, PepsiCo and The Hershey Company. She can be reached at sharon_love-@-tpninc.com..


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