Thursday, October 16, 2008

Being Big and Local – An Exercise in Creativity

My in-laws once owned a drugstore in Seaside, California, where my father-in-law was the pharmacist and chief merchant. He used to special-order merchandise for his customers, and knew them by name and their orders by heart. Back then, big chain stores and department stores did the same thing, and each store was run by a powerful store manager.

Over the last two decades, most retailers have been wresting that control away from store managers and shifting it to centralized departments in the name of cost controls and consistency of experience, but something may have been lost in the process.

In previous posts, I’ve speculated about the challenges facing big brands at a time when consumers want their shopping experiences to feel “special” and not mass-produced. That was before the economy took a nose-dive. Now, I think people are outright scared, and they want to know that the people they deal with understand and care about them. At the same time, leading retailers are pursuing initiatives to “get local."

So, is the pendulum swinging back in favor of store managers? It surprises me to say so, but I have to answer "maybe."

Macy’s recently announced its My Macy’s initiative to "design and merchandise stores to reflect local tastes. The program will shift more decision-making to the local level, tapping ideas from customers and sales associates." According to a Chicago Sun-Times story last week, in Chicago the initiative aims to woo back loyal Marshall-Fields customers, lost when Federated acquired their favorite retailer and retired the brand. In Pittsburgh, it’s aimed at reengaging fans of Kauffman’s, which was also obliterated by acquisition, according to a September story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Keeping those names may have been the best way to retain loyal customers in those markets. It’s an expensive proposition to bring in local merchandising managers and buy and warehouse region-specific inventory to recreate the home-town feeling those brands gave customers.

In a variation on this theme, some retailers will introduce a few high-profile items into their assortment to speak to local tastes and needs. That’s one direction Origins is exploring. As I mentioned in a story last month, Origins has created unique products that address the effects of Denver’s mile-high atmosphere on a woman’s skin and is testing them in a few of its company-owned Denver stores. If they test well, Origins could offer them to area retail accounts to help them get local, or keep them for itself to give customers in Denver a reason to come to their stores.

What can retailers do to go local without incurring the inventory and personnel costs of store or market level merchandising and logistics?

Best Buy recently opened a store-within-a-store focused on musical instruments and music lessons. The concept could do a lot to promote the company’s "local-ness," depending on how it’s implemented.

The company has a great opportunity to get local across a whole host of categories by becoming a channel for local instructors. Some instructors might even choose to sell instruments or teach in the store. The key to appealing to them is to acknowledge they are small business owners with a passion for their area of expertise and arguably less interest or ability in marketing.

This approach could apply to several categories of current Best Buy merchandise – from cooking to computer programming to web design classes. And it could make the music lessons idea work, too. In the way it supports and showcases local class providers and promotes their connection to Best Buy, the company could ensure that the providers’ “local-ness” rubs off on its own brand.

The beauty of this approach is that it does not involve payroll or inventory expenses. It hinges on a creative approach to execution. And that should be music to any CFO's ears!

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