Retail should behave like social media

Retail should behave like social media
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Given the challenges faced by Australia’s retail industry, and our enthusiasm for social media, it’s understandable that we’re seeing digital agencies present social media as the panacea for retailers’ woes.

The logic makes sense: since we love social media, and our retailers are battling prevailing winds, then the solution is simple: spend more money on social media.  

Australian retailers are playing catch-up to global players in terms of e-tailing, social media spend and in-store technology, but there is a big problem facing retailers worldwide: shoppers are turning away from traditional stores because they’re finding them boring. The problem isn’t poor social media: it’s bad poor store experiences.

Retail can learn big lessons from the success of social media, but not in the way that we’re usually told: instead of doing more social media, retailer stores can be more like social media.

How? There are ‘three C’s’ that users love about social media: Content, Community and Constant Change. Better translating those things that people love about social media into retail stores will help create retail experiences that build brand desire and grow the bottom line.

Content

We check into Twitter, Instagram and Facebook several times a day because we’re addicted to the content. We’ve curated our own never-ending and endlessly fascinating stream of images and words.

To create a great brand experience, retail stores need great content, and it needs to be over and above the products they sell. The good news is that physical stores have more ways to create and deliver content than other channels. Retailers have created content in a very literal sense, like Acne’s acclaimed magazine Acne Paper, available in store. 

Content can be physical and very simple, like samples at Thomas Dux or candy bars in Topshop, or more artistic, such as the “Chanel and the Diamond” film series screened in Chanel boutiques. Events like Toby’s Estate’s public cupping events, or learning how to break up animals at the Hudson Meats butcher chain is the kind of brand-building content that retailers can do better than any channel.

Retailers need to ask themselves: what is the content people will come into our store for, other than the products we’re selling?

Community

Social media, by definition, is social. Too few Australian retailers create social experiences in store, which is ironic considering they are perfectly placed to capitalise on an increasing desire to connect.

Some of our best retailers are the best at creating community in store. Lulu Lemon’s stores turn into free yoga classes, using local instructors, fostering a micro-community while linking with the brand’s higher purpose of helping people to live long, healthy, and fun lives.

Strategically, retailers need to convert their real-world assets into more social spaces to maintain relevance. TAB, Australia’s second largest retailer after Australia Post in numbers of stores, is working at transforming its stores into ‘places for mateship’ as it battles increasingly vocal online competitors.    

A lot of retailers think they’re creating community though loyalty programs and rewards points, but this is really only going half way: they need to make spaces where community can happen.

Constant Change

Talking about Twitter at SXSW this year, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff said deep down users love the constantly updating feeds we can’t ever hope to read: we like that social media moves faster than we do, because that means it’s always new. It’s the pace of social media, and all online media channels, that makes real world retail seem slow by comparison: we now expect stores to be different when we go back a week later, and we’re disappointed when they’re not.

Constantly updating and refreshing is something the global fast fashion retailers like Zara and Topshop are doing  comparatively well in Australia through product and merchandising, and consumers are responding with their feet and dollars. With H&M, River Island and Uniqlo arriving from 2014, Australian fashion retail will need to adapt to new consumer expectations of evergreen retail environments.  

It’s not possible or practical for all retailers to change the store environment as frequently as fast-fashion chains. But there are different ways to keep fresh, and to suggest continual renewal. Retail expert Rachel Shechtman recently launched a new retail concept in New York called Story.

Each month, the store relaunches with a new issue, which so far have included love, colour and New York – complete with a new sponsor and entirely new products. With its constantly changing theme, the much-talked about Story concept truly is behaving like media: creating retail issues in the same way a magazine would.

Retail will live or die on the strength of the store experience, and by bringing in social media’s values of content, community and constant change, Australian retail stores hopefully again become a place we enjoy going and spending our money.   

Benjamin Harrison is Strategy Consultant at Clear.

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