Stocks for major U.S. retailers are tumbling, and it’s not because of Target’s bathroom policy. In my opinion, it’s because the stores themselves look old and tired, the women’s fashion product lines are alternatively boring or not age-appropriate, and, when compared to online shopping, stores offer less information to the consumer.
Consider Macy’s – its showpiece in Herald Square in New York City is a dazzling tourist destination. Its interior and exterior are bright and light. The first floor has windows, with natural light coming in. Products are well organized, staff are well trained. I received excellent service from an associate in the men’s tie section – he was clearly a tie expert and I was very happy with my purchase.
Compare the flagship with a local Macy’s. Where I live, the store exteriors are made of aging brick in a brutalist design – not exactly exuding a welcoming attitude. Inside, it’s the usual layout found in anchor stores in malls. Perfume at the main interior mall entrance, women’s wear sections wrap around the perfume area, with men’s wear at the back (usually with its own exterior doors, so the guys don’t have to get through the scented area). No natural light, or even fake natural-looking light; just harsh white-white lighting.
Some retailers cram their apparel on racks, making it difficult for shoppers to find what they want. Next comes the search for the elusive cashier.
Do the corporate managers ever do a surprise walkabout at one of their stores? Have they considered employing ‘mystery shoppers’ to report on the average shopper’s experience?
As for fashion, it’s a sad follow the leader story. I enjoy going to New York City sample sales, and have been inside quite a few fashion studios. Last year, I noticed how everybody was going for the 1970s retro look. I told one designer: don’t go there! I lived through the 1970s and it was ugly (think leisure suits ). Naturally, as I was not one of the fashion gods (those mysterious people who dictate trends) I was ignored.
Consequently, retailers had racks of ponchos and other garments in burgundy, brown, beige, burnt orange on offer. Markdowns couldn’t happen fast enough. Then came a wave of clothing mostly in black or gray: incredibly funeral.
Some retailers seem to classify women’s wear into two categories: teenager and frumpy. They offer choices between spangled T-shirts and tight ripped jeans versus droopy oversized sweaters and baggy knit pants.
The final element is the lack of information for the consumer. An online shopper looking for a dress can read about the exact measurements for each size, the fabric, and, most importantly, get information about what other shoppers thought of the dress. Is it popular? Did it fit as advertised? Come apart after the first dry cleaning or wash? Was it good value for the money?
Another bonus is how online retailers manage to avoid the mandates of the fashion gods and that teenager-frump paradigm. A buyer who thinks burgundy gaucho pants are hideous will discover many other options online. And if she is over 40 she’ll find attractive clothing that fits well and is spangle-free.
As much of department store retailing is dependent upon women’s fashion, the store CEOs need to get their marketing into the 21st century. Instead of selling things based upon the dictates of the fashion gods – find clothing in colors, cut and quality that women want to wear. Shopping should be an easy and pleasant experience that begins with the exterior of the building. Who wants to shop inside a building that could pass for a modernized Shawshank Prison?
Finally, treat consumers as adults: make it easy for them to get information about the products on the rack. One option might be to start a feedback loop from in-store shoppers about their opinions about products.
Brick-and-mortar stores will never disappear – but in the future they may be mostly specialty stores such as wedding gown retailers. Over the next 20 years, as more cohorts of consumers enter the online shopping sector, large department stores could become passé. If retailers and their stockholders want their performance to improve – and survive long term, management needs to rethink how and what they sell to their consumers.
Joanne Butler was a professional staff member at the US House Ways & Means Committee; issues included trade and Social Security. In the Bush Administration's Labor Department, she was a senior advisor to an assistant secretary, handling a wide range of issues from speechwriting to program quality control. She has a graduate degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, with a concentration in economics and international finance.