The rise of democratic retail

First published in Fairfax NZ Business 21 October 2014

Statistics are a funny thing. Sometimes data is released so frequently it can render itself useless to the average business owner.

Every week consumer confidence ratings go up or down by one or two percentage points. And that information, while mildly interesting, doesn’t offer any meaningful insight to a retailer trying to increase purchases in their store.

But there are times when a particular finding rises above the noise. You hear it mentioned by one source, and it rings true. Then, weeks later a completely different source gives a similar piece of insight except worded differently. And before you know it, a new narrative is formed.

I had that feeling last week at an Australian retail seminar put on by Westfield. As with many seminars, there were speakers presenting on last year’s topic, packaged under a new buzzword.

But then there was something that had me taking notice. Trend Watching called it ‘brand sacrifice,’  AMP Capital Shopping Centres called it ‘the consulting consumer’ and one of Westfield’s speakers referred to the ‘decentralisation of information.’

Basically, it all points to customers expecting a company to work much harder to win them over.

Customers now might expect full disclosure from companies on how a product is produced – for example what Nike did this year when they released their manufacturing map. The sportswear firm created an interactive detailed analysis of every single factory used by their company, down to employee number, average age and physical address of the factory.

This new ‘consulting consumer’ might expect retailers to create a truly unique experience that takes us to another world, such as Australian brand Sneakerboy are trying out. Sneakerboy uses their funky physical “store” as a showroom for its uber pricey trainers, which can only be ordered online. In the showroom, digital screens show real-time sales as they happen.

This extra effort doesn’t just apply to hip youth brands.

Last year Telstra rolled out a new retail concept created by interior design firm Geyer and said they saw sales rise immediately. The ‘Store of the Future’ has no traditional counters for sales staff to stand behind, but is more open and leaves staff and customers mobile and active.

Something we’ve all come to love about the Apple stores is staff everywhere, all equally knowledgeable and the ability to purchase at any point in time and place within the Apple space. If you need another buzzword for it, it’s the ‘democratisation of retail’.

As if to hammer it home, at Melbourne’s Chadstone Shopping Centre yesterday I noticed classic brand Salvatore Ferragamo, promoting  customised shoes. For AU$895 the company allows customers to go online and choose the material, colour, bow, heel, hardware, initials, width and of course size and create our very own classic Ferragamo ballet shoe.

A $900 personal loafer? Now that’s democracy!