A marketing strategist walks into a retail store…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You go to a retail store. Let’s call it Guitar Center. You’re looking for a new gig bag for your Fender bass, because your old one has seen one too many gigs and had one too many beers spilled on it. (Okay, maybe you were also hoping to find a MusicMan four-string with the maple neck and dual soapbar humbuckers…sigh.)

You walk in – on a Monday morning at 10:30 where you’re maybe the ONLY customer – and browse the bags. Two are on display. One cheapy-thingy on sale for $49.99, and one demonstrably superior name-brand bag with lots of padding, secret pockets and the extra thick handle. No price on that one. Hmmm.  Maybe someone will come by and help. You’ll look around and do that neck-and-eyebrow-raise thing, so someone will know you need help. After five to seven minutes of being ignored, you’ll walk out. Your first and sadly, only, thought is “I’ll just get it on Amazon.”

Think of your own recent experiences in big- and medium-box retail stores. How many of us have gone to a store in the hopes of finding that “perfect” item only to find that it isn’t on the shelf, or isn’t available in the correct size? We’ve even gone to the store in the hopes of finding something we weren’t expecting and being pleasantly surprised, just because we were in the “shopping” mood. We’ve all done it. That’s one of the real allures of brick and mortar retail. But very often, those hopes are dashed by any number of obstacles: traffic, a messy store, lack of trained sales or service professionals, and of course the old standby: the in-stock conundrum. 

On its own merits, the brick and mortar interaction provides a unique personal experience (and the associated dopamine rush) of acquiring something you want or just found out you want immediately. That’s the buzz of retail: “I will walk out of this store and have this thing that I want. Right. Friggin. Now.” Pretty nifty. And it has served retailers well for more than a century in our modern economy. Cue the trendy décor, the zippy displays, the music playing, yada, yada, yada.

But one of the many issues that retail now faces – an issue it has been avoiding the last decade and a half – is competition. Not competition from like purveyors, that’s always been there. But a more intellectual, conceptual competition, from a now-proven and alternative option of almost-real-time satisfaction of needs, but with greater/broader filter-able choice, and often at a similar or sometimes lower price point. And in consumer consciousness, choice is a mammoth motivator. Online shopping has removed borders, opened up consumers to entire lines of inventory, and added convenience across every possible variable.

This competition has come into sharp focus because consumers are also smarter now than they’ve ever been. Not necessarily on an IQ level, but on an informational level. We know that there are more than two colors of that dress we saw in Zara. We know that there is more than one charging base option for that hammer drill we saw in Home Depot. (And we know that there are more than two kinds of bass guitar gig bags, and that they should have a price tag on them! Ahem.) We KNOW, because we saw them online, when we did our pre-shopping research.   

And there’s the rub. Retail offers instant gratification, yes, but at a premium, and with noticeable limitations, particularly in the amount of both inventory and information available in-store. And today almost every consumer experience, in almost every category, starts with an online search.

In order to survive and even thrive, retail has to now compete the way any brand category competes against direct and indirect competition: by outlining and exploiting a discernible difference, and then promoting an entirely different kind of experience. (In a manner similar to how cruise ships compete against other forms of travel.)

Retail has to deep-dive into what the online channel cannot physically or intellectually deliver, put a package of features together, deliver them well and consistently, and promote the snot out of the “new” and exciting experience. Heck, they could even lobby to have JD Power or some other authority rank “best retail experience” or “best in-store vibe” as new categories, if they don’t already.

And retail is chock full of delicious experiential differences that online will never be able to deliver. Not even in a metaverse: Trying things on. The new car smell. Seeing the HD picture in person. Playing the guitar for half an hour in three different amps. Hitting the new irons. Sitting on the couch.

If retail wants to survive into future decades, it’s going to have to differentiate on those attributes that online shopping simply can’t offer. We may – dare I say it? – return to a world where retail stores are wondrous destinations staffed with super-knowledgeable professionals that make the buying experience really fun and interesting…and worth “the trip.” Consumers would go for that.

Pop-up Marketing: The Good, the Bad and the Opportunity.

You’ve heard the term, you’ve read the intelligence papers, you may have even found yourself in a pop-up retail shop over the holidays.  But is the pop-up model worth the investment?  Is it worth it to your brand?  And if you’re a small to midsize brand, is the model feasible for you?

The Good

Pop-up marketing, whether it’s a retail store or some kind of neat, immersive consumer experience, can create immediate revenue from a new source with a moderately approachable expense ratio.  If it’s a retail shop, you’re typically not locked into a long-term lease, can poach staff from other locations and stock the shop with inventory and display equipment that you already own.

The pop-up model allows your brand to extend in a different direction, which can be very healthy, and even serve as a self-solvent research program.  Perhaps you install an outpost of a well-liked operation in a new location to test adoption; or try a adding a different type of inventory to your typical operation in a new part of town; or maybe you bring a certain type of merchandise into a retail cluster that doesn’t feature your wares; all of these options are feasible and can expand the appeal of your brand.

As a result, pop-up marketing can also generate a healthy amount of buzz.  The brand now has a new reason to interface with existing customers, can reach out to new prospects with a new offer, and can also establish new b-to-b relationships with suppliers, buyers, shippers, designers, etc.

The Bad

Despite all the benefits of pop-up marketing, there may be instances where the temporary nature of the model can actually damage the brand.  For instance, a customer walks down Spring Street in SoHo and sees that a pop-up shop for a hot designer has, well, popped up.  Not able to stop in at the moment, he makes a mental note to return in a week or so.  Upon return, an empty space, with a sign on the window:  “For lease or sale.”

So why is this so bad?  Proponents of pop-up marketing will argue that the customer will go and seek out that hot designer elsewhere, since the pop-up stimulated awareness and maybe even a modicum of desire for the brand.  However, there’s a snub factor there that can impact perceptions of that designer.  It may even be that prospect X now harbors some latent hostility for that brand since it’s no longer easily available.  Or worse, a whole group of customers who may not “get” pop-up marketing might think that hot designer wasn’t so hot after all, and had to close down…not knowing that it was a pop-up shop in the first place.  Perceptions matter in marketing.

On a larger scale, we live in the Internet era, an age where data are stored for eternity and accessible anytime at our fingertips.  The very nature of the information superhighway is embedded with the notion of permanence.  It’s the Library of Congress + every local town library + every special interest database times a zillion.  And it’s always on.  For better or worse, this is the training the average consumer has been given for the last decade and a half.  The pop-up model is antithetical to that rearing.

For instance, what would happen if Facebook just disappeared?  In yesterday’s New York Times, I read an article about how Friendster is about to dump thousands of terrabytes of data – personal memories, photos, posts and testimonials from about seven or eight years ago.  People are up in arms.  Some are distressed.  Many are vocal about their disapproval.  Friendster’s data dump is the pop-up model gone awry.

The Opportunity

So if you’re a small or midsize company, and you’d like to give your brand a boost, you might consider pop-up marketing as a viable short-term solution.  Remember that retail is only one form of pop-up marketing.  Obviously, if you’re a service provider, it’s hard to sell customized solutions in that model.  So be creative:  consider events as a pop-up marketing opportunity: short-term, low overhead, and an opportunity to drive leads and create new business-side relationships.

For the best brand impact, though, consider something truly creative.  Where would your brand do well, but in a physical or perceptual space that your customers might not expect?  The most powerful combination in marketing is relevance + unexpectedness.  If you can create that for your brand using a pop-up model, you might see another good combination emerge:  short-term expense + long-term brand value.

The IKEA brand – is it TOO Swedish?

Ikea is an impressive brand.  It’s the world’s largest furniture retailer, it’s privately held, there are more than 300 stores in 37 countries, and nearly half a billion unique visitors hit the website in the last year.

Perhaps more impressive is the way the company is marketed and how the brand is communicated.  Ikea has embraced the direct marketing model (the Ikea catalog is published in 27 languages and accounts for something like 70% of the company’s total marketing budget,) and great pains are taken to sell the Swedish-ness of the company.

The stores themselves are bold blue buildings with yellow lettering and highlight features.  These are the national colors of Sweden.  The furniture names are based on a disciplined system, and feature words and names of decidedly Nordic/Scandinavian provenance.  Names like Besta, Ektorp, Framsta, Inreda, Karlstad, Pragel and Varde.  The stores even feature restaurants and food markets serving Swedish meatballs, cinnamon rolls (whose aromas usually flood the checkout areas,) and lingonberry jam.

But being soooo Swedish can have its drawbacks, too.  For instance, most Ikea stores feature a “one-way” meandering layout, forcing the consumer to go through virtually every section of the store just to find his or her desired items.  There are shortcuts, but people rarely use them.  Most American retail consumers prefer aisles and rows to quickly find what they came for.  Further, the furniture itself is almost always a self-assembly.  This is to keep costs down and to improve the complex inventory stocking process – most Ikea stores are simply warehouses with a nice second floor.  Again, quite different – most American furniture stores deliver your furniture and assemble it for you.

The real doozy in Ikea stores comes when you try to check out. Most shopping carts feature two fixed rear wheels and two swiveling forward wheels, which allow you to “steer” in any direction you choose. The shopping carts at Ikea feature four swiveling wheels, which means that as you navigate the wiggly winding path the store forces you to take through the maze of Nordic-named furniture, the cart is zigging and zagging into merchandise displays and even fellow shoppers. Then, as you self-load your 150-lb bookshelf, the cart becomes nearly impossible to maneuver, simply growing a mind and a navigation system of its own.

I submit that Ikea is one of the most consistently delivered and managed brands.  But in a few cases, in a few countries, they could make intelligent and insightful compromises to improve the consumer experience.  Starting with less-Swedish shopping carts.