Delivering on the Promise

Specialty Retailers love to tell you how "special" they are. However, from the customers perspective, what makes a retailer "special" is the meeting your clientele's expectation of being introduced to genuinely unique merchandise, artists or designers, and on a fairly regular basis.

While cost-effectiveness virtually prohibits brick and mortar retailers from really knocking your socks off each time you visit, I am perplexed as to why more of them opt not to use their online presence to do just that, showcase something new.

Today I would like to share a couple of websites I visit often, CoutureLab and Portero. While they both speak for themselves aesthetically, I would like to share a few thoughts on why they both work exceedingly well from a (repeat) business perspective. 

CoutureLab is truly one of the most unique and satisfying retail destinations on the web. If you need a gift for the person who has everything, well don't buy that person anything! If you seek a special "job well done" gift for yourself, or for that very special someone in your life, CoutureLab is your destination.

Upon entering the website you start to get a sense that something, both unusual and fascinating, is one click away. Not because you hear the thumping soundtrack of a famous DJ's techno-remix, or the page somehow sways like wheat fields in a windstorm. No, the power in this site's introductory page is it's immediate insistance that "this will be different." Right on page one you are told the site offers custom pieces from their formidable stable of artists and designers. All the while images of unique, one-of-a-kind merchandise flies across the screen before you can fully grasp how awesome they are.

After choosing from a broad range of categories, you are instantly (and I mean INSTANTLY) aware that your are at a destination with an well-edited assortment of artisans unlike anything you are used to. Each page screams "I want it all". From the Bottega Veneta double-flap briefcase to Vincente Gracia's nest and serpent ring , the amount of care, patience and craftsmanship is readily apparent.

The CoutureLab site also offers many different views of each item, a full, detailed description of the merchandise (and artist most times) and one of the best zoom features I've ever played with.

But the true strength of CoutureLab is.... they are always FRESH! 

The first button you can click on the first page of the website is literally "new." And while lots of websites offer that feature, few deliver on the promise as frequently as CoutureLab. My faith is rewarded on each visit by an item I have not seen, or perhaps, a new artist or designer I have not heard of before. I am sure you will admit that being first in your sphere of influence trumps just about everything else.

CoutureLab delivers on the promise by rewarding me each time I take a gander to their site. This, most certainly, is a site you should be visiting on a quite regular basis.

Next up is Portero, or what I refer to as Me-Bay. That's because it is an eBay designed for the likes of Audrey Hepburn.

Now the founders of Portero knew very well, the leviathan that is eBay, sold everything under the sun when they decided to start this company a short three and one-half years ago. The also knew eBay sold almost every luxury goods label imaginable. But what the Portero team understood that nobody else knew then (or really even now), is that luxury can never be luxury if sold next to knock-offs, or amongst disreputable vendors.

So that is what Portero offers, AUTHENTICATION! 

That cannot be overstated in the circus of today's online retail marketplace. Every item sold on Portero is certified as authentic by an in-house category specialist, or in some instances, a certified vendor. So gone are the days of finding out your Louis Vuitton wallet purchased for  $7.45 for is not the real deal when you take it to the store for a repair.

Enter the Portero website and you are jaunted to attention. "I'm sorry, does that say Picasso for sale?", you think before the page even finishes loading. Indeed it is. This is your immediate signal indicating you are somewhere special, where luxury means luxury.  

You are then directed to choose a category, at which time you are inundated by the biggest names in luxury: Hermes (yes croco Birkins live here), Judith Leiber, Dior, Cartier, Chopard, Bulgari, Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Baccarat and Lalique. That warm sensation becomes hot flashes as you start to notice the prices. Yes, that is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust in black and stainless steel on bid for $2975, a full 40% off it's retail price of $5550! Yes, that is a Gurhan 24k Yellow Gold Hammered Marquis Pendant necklace on bid for $725, less than half the regular retail price of $1760! Two great examples of why this site is one of the fastest growing entities on the web, for those in the know are aware that rare are the times you'll find Rolex or Gurhan at a discount. Yet here they are.

And therein lies the allure of Portero. A steady stream of new additions to their pre-authenticated auction inventory. The best names in luxury, all new or gently used and at a  tremendous discount. You are now forced to visit on a regular basis, lest that Chanel Large Black Caviar Leather Tote going for less than half-price is still there. Thus, Portero is always delivering on the promise, of sustained renewal.

These are two retailers getting the most on two important fronts, repeat business and word of mouth. Each exceeding the expectations of  their clientele on every visit with something fresh, new and exciting. A business model that can be applied quite easily, given the proper motivation and leadership. 

Now that is what I call "Special."


Gloomy Outlook, But Not For All

Most retail analysts have already written the eulogy for this years Holiday Shopping Season, and they may be correct. However, not all retailers find themselves facing the same obstacles in their path to a successful, 4th Quarter.

There are, in fact, several retailers that should perform strongly in the face of what many are calling the "toughest Holiday outlook in recent memory." Stores that should vastly outperform their counterparts include: Costco, GameStop and Wal-Mart.

Costco is a membership warehouse retailer that carries a wide range of name-brand products, from Snickers and fresh seafood, to Travel and Home Improvement Services, even funeral caskets at select locations.

This holiday should prove to be a boon for Costco above and beyond everyone else because of financial pressure being put on the top end of the consumer segment. The global financial crisis has had an impact on more than just Wall Street. So as more people start to tighten belts across the country, the question will not become "what can I live without", but rather "how can I live the same for less?". 

Costco, with its spotless stores, wide-aisles, hefty and brand-relevant assortment, coupled with a welcoming, friendly, well-informed staff is poised to become the favorite destination of many a budget-cruncher between now and January.

Sales are poised to surge in their electronics category, where the popular Vizio line of plasma TV's deliver a lot of television (up to 60"), for not much hurt on the pocketbook (under $3000). Add to that a full  line of IPod products, as well as several GPS options, all at a discount, and you start to see why this is an opportunity shoppers will not pass on.

The category that will really drive Costco to the top of the "holiday winners" chart this year will be it's unending supply of name-brand household essentials, all at incomparable prices. Whether it's Tide detergent, Starbucks coffee, Heinz catsup, Special K cereal, Crest toothpaste, Shiseido facial cream, Huggies diapers or Advil and Aleve pain tablets, this store has all the bases covered. 

So as more and more Americans make saving a priority, while trying to maintain the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed, stores like Sam's Club will get a bump. The clear winner though will be the retailers that carries the familiar products, at fantastic prices. That store is Costco.

The only category that seems to be bucking every negative trend in the recent retail market is, consumer electronics. Think about it, over the last eighteen months we have seen the wildly successful rollouts of: Nintendo's Wii, Sony's BlueRay DVD and PS3, Apples' IPhone, IPod touch and MacBook Air, Google's G1, BlackBerry's everything, afordable HD camcorders, Microsoft's Zune, as well as others I am sure I am forgetting at the moment. Wow!

Thus far, in 2008, recording artists have produced 15 Platinum albums, with Lil' Wayne's "Tha Carter III" leading the way with sales in excess of 2 million copies. That pales in comparison to the unprecedented 26 video game titles that have sold over 1 million units in the U.S. alone since January 1 of this year. When you consider the top selling video game title of 2008, Wii Sports, sold 6.4 million copies in the United States alone, you start to grasp the gravity of the situation.

GameStop, with 4000+ stores in the U.S., is the retailer best positioned to reap the benefits of the video game phenomenon during holiday 2008. The store is, quite literally, everywhere. And we need them to be. 

They also have something every retailer in America only dreams of replicating, a staff of "users", or people that use and know the ins and outs of everything sold in the store. Non-gaming adults can walk through the doors of a GameStop, ask for a gift suggestion and, depending on how many associates are on staff, get a lively debate on the merits of many options, generally ending in your walking away with a sound choice, sure to satisfy the most ardent gamer.

Beyond being helpful and knowledgeable, the return policy is beyond fair (I would say the best in the retail industry). Just bring the receipt, along with your opened or unopened product, and you can exchange the item, as long as it is within 30 days. This is most fair because the average gamer is more than happy to visit their GameStop more than once a month, if not once a week. 

The Video Game Industry, more than any other, has emulated and capitalized on the model of the Motion Picture Industry's model of making events out of big releases. With the hyper-successful releases of GTA-IV and Halo-3, as well as last nights Fall Out 3, they seems to be going about utilizing this strategy to it's full potential. They also have the benefit of rolling out a few MAJOR titles this year. For unlike movie titles, video game sequels are sure things! 

This holiday season will see the release of Resistance 2 (11/4), Gears of War 2 (11/7), Call of Duty 5 (11/11), Tomb Raider: Underworld (11/18) and Prince of Persia (12/2), which gets a "Batman Begins" style franchise reboot that looks impressive so far.

So, barring running out of merchandise (don't laugh, it happened a lot during holiday 2007), Gamestop seems a sure bet to have a break-out 4th  Quarter.

The last "winner" of Holiday 2008 will be Walmart

If for no other reason than they have the smartest (no one claims most beloved) team in the business. They are just spot on in their forecasting, with most other retailers sitting around waiting for Walmart to break the good/bad news and react accordingly. The problem this year is, there will be NO TIME to react to market conditions. Retailers will sink or swim based on the decisions their merchandising teams made, some as early as February 2008. Do you shudder at the thought? I certainly do. 

I can tell you I would not be comfortable with a retail decision made in mid-September,before the market meltdown, let alone 3-9 months ago. The Walmart team are always, always, always analyzing every aspect of their business, so they have razor-thin margins, and the best inventory management systems in the business, hands down. This will allow them to make the moves necessary to ensure they are taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself within their stores. The combination of speed and information will allow them to emerge better off than almost everyone else. Don't look for a massive increase, but expect them to come away with a win, if only marginal.

There are certainly storm clouds on the horizon this holiday season, however, I am comfortable in saying these three retailers brought their collective umbrellas.

Thank You Dana Thomas

Deluxe, despite its horribly misleading subtitle, is a book everyone, who is not perpetually naked, should read.

It is less expose, than penetrating journey into the world of real luxury manufacturers. 

I won't spend much time on the details of the book because I want you to draw your own conclusions. 

However, I will say the book is a page-turner, and I came away all the more prepared, focused and in touch with what I want my "brand" to be about.

This book is part Business, part Biography and Dana Thomas achieves a quite rare feat in these pages, she makes a complex subject very entertaining from page one.


Layaway No Longer a Laughing Matter

For easily the last 30 years, the word "layaway" has carried a negative, almost comic, connotation with it. Comics from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, even George Carlin, have found humor in this most "common" way of purchasing items. That is, over a period of time, before taking them home.

Oh how times have changed. Layaway is making a comeback!

Walmart, the worlds largest retailer, ceremoniously ended their layaway program in September of 2006, a move the smartest retailer in the world has to be re-evaluating at this very hour. K-Mart never suspended it's program and now, in fact, is heavily promoting layaway in it's 1380 stores.

The culprit? A dramatic downturn in the economy, but most importantly, a freeze on credit throughout every almost every industry.

Most are well-versed of the growing nightmare of home mortgage delinquencies, but few have paid attention to the staggering amount of personal credit card defaults which are rising at an alarming rate. This has made credit card-issuers highly-selective at a time of year when consumers are most likely looking to increase their credit lines, the holiday shopping season.

The solution, at some savvy retailers, seems to lie in having consumers start paying for those holiday purchases before the holidays, in stark contrast to the usual "No Money 'til January 2030" ads we see each November and December.

There may even be a move towards attempting to make layaway more mainstream. 

In October of 2007 I came across this nugget on a business journal site I like to watch. Dieon Sanders, of Professional Football fame, was teaming up with a company that did not seem to fit the "branding" model of most pro athletes. The company? eLayaway, a company that offers layaway on items from over 250 merchant stores. They do not sell merchandise, they are primarily just the servicer of payments to those merchants. Using this model, I foresee a tremendous growth in the next 6-12 months in merchant membership, primarily because it could furnish anonymity to a participating merchant at the store level. A consumer could pay over time at eLayaway, then walk through the doors of say, Abercrombie and Fitch, to pick up their merchandise, all without any sign, within the store, of the transaction being consummated through layaway.

Don't expect to see this in your local Nordstrom, Sak's or Neiman's any time soon, but as more Americans come face to face with the reality of this economic crisis, look for layaway to, perhaps, take on a new persona, wide cultural acceptance.

Best Product of 2008 = Consumer Democracy

Shop Savvy is a new application available on the new G1 mobile phone, powered by Google Android and sold exclusively through T-mobile.

This is the most promising and impactful development on the retail frontier right now. 

Why you ask?

This is literally the democratization of the pricing process. Imagine a customer armed with the knowledge of how much an item they are interested in purchasing cost at every retailer in the immediate area, as well as online.

Well, imagine no more. This amazing application scans the bar code on any product, then gives you the price and location for every retailer selling that item in your current zip code. As a bonus you get prices from online retailers and contact information for each of them. 

Now, if you are on the train and the person next to you recommends a book they are reading, you can scan the bar code and purchase it when you get off the train. The bottle of Veuve Clicquot may cost a few bucks less down the street, find out immediately.

Here is a demo of the application:

There is so much upside to Shop Savvy that I cannot imagine anyone not seeing this as a necessity. This will force retailers to compete on price, thus ensuring that each customer really is getting the best price on their purchase.

The future is here and it's name is Shop Savvy, on the G1 mobile phone, powered by Google Adroid, available exclusively at T-Mobile.


The Great ('08) Missed Opportunity

There are few retailers having "break-out" business right now.

That being said, I wondered if there are any glaring missed opportunities by the major retailers at the moment. It took less than 15 minutes to not only come up with a HUGE missed opportunity, but to have it confirmed by multiple sources as an item each and every one of them had to find new resources to purchase.

The Item.....Barack Wear!!!

Since, at least early February the Obama phenomenon has been in full swing, with a multitude of industries, esp. media, riding his coat-tails to unprecedented growth in their respective trades.  Perhaps none more so than apparel-makers, all mired in what has been a long (well in excess of a year) stretch without an "it" item.  Well the "it" item has been "anything Obama!"

While it is quite easy to say this election has not been decided yet, there is no denying the Obama behemoth in regards to merchandising sales. 

I checked the websites of Saks, Neiman's, Nordstrom, Bergdorf, Bloomingdales and Macy's, nothing! To be fair, I also checked Target, Sears and Kohl's, they also were not selling anything in their apparel divisions.

This cash cow has been left to the online market ENTIRELY! A cursory Google search for Obama merchandise will provide one thousands of shopping options, from doggie-tee's for $9.00 to the Swarovski crystal t-shirt pictured above on sale for $189.99 down from $380.00 at DesignerRhinestoneFashion.com. One retailer, Azalea Boutique, even sold jeans in a dark mocha color named "Obama".

There can be no doubt that designers took note of the Obama-phenomenon, as pointed out in last Saturdays Chicago Tribune. The major retailers will have little choice but to carry the goods come Spring 2009, as many top designers, such as Zac Posen, chose to run with Obama themes and influences for their upcoming collections.

The estimates for how much Obama merchandise has sold from January 2008 to now range from $200 million to $1.4 billion, depending on the source. If he is become President-elect, sales are expected to explode for the foreseeable future. Even if you settle somewhere in the middle of those figures, one question comes to mind....

How did all the smart people at these companies miss this opportunity?

1st things 1st

If you work with, or within, the Retail community and have not read this book, please try to explain to me WHY NOT?

Mark Stevens lays out, quite clearly, the very simple framework for turning any business around. The book is example-driven and done in  very common sense fashion.

I really think it the new bible of professional management techniques. You cannot read this book and come away saying you feel as confident, or as lousy, about yourself, your team, or company. 

It is still the only book I give as a gift to professional clients, and it belongs in your library.....like yesterday.

Now why did I say all that, you ask? I think it necessary to make everyone aware that this blog is meant to be a celebration of the "new". Together I hope to share new ideas and exciting breakthroughs that are decimating the barriers that we find ourselves trying to hurdle in the everyday retail environment.

Whether it is advertising, marketing, human resources, visual presentation, merchandising, training, hiring, increasing sales, budgeting, trend-spotting, fixtures, events, promotions, online-presence or forecasting, if it has to do with the Retail Industry, it's fair game.

Let's get started..