January 07, 2009

Merchandise

When you look across acres of 60% off signs, buy-one-get-one-free, $3 shirt clearance racks, and other assorted discounts at the mall, you realize we've lost our connection with merchandise.

The folks at Apple haven't lost that connection. Your average Apple store has customers waiting outside the door.

A walk through the mall today indicates that the average store has one employee, and few customers.

At Nordstrom, our Chief Accessories Merchant was Margaret Myers. This merchant had PASSION. She fully believed in her merchandise. I could bring her 37 pages of customer data indicating that customers wanted "x". She would spend ten minutes, passionately arguing her case. I'd walk out of her office happily executing the exact opposite plan I wished to implement.

A merchant with passion is a terrible thing to waste.

When you walk through one of the large "brands" occupying space in a mall, do you see love and passion for merchandise? You can't replicate love and passion by paying Ashley Judd to use her image next to a pile of sale merchandise with the quote "I Love This Stuff!" on her image.

You want to have a merchant who communicates the story, who conveys passion, who wills you to want to buy the item.


Marketing and the credit devils (employees aren't credit devils, by the way, they're just doing their job) fill the void when passion isn't present.

We see desperation, not passion, when we see 60% and 70% off signs on every rounder. I understand this measure is necessary to clear inventory that is ready to spoil. But every second those signs sit on the rounders, a message is conveyed that is contrary to what the customer needs to hear.

A walk through the Bellis Fair Mall indicates that an era is coming to an end. Since about 1980, the Baby Boomer generation fueled retail commerce. Stores illustrated innovation and magic. Competitors filled the mall, then saturated the landscape. We bowed down to the credit devils, borrowing in order to over-saturate, to "capture marketshare" and "increase shareholder value". Ultimately, the Baby Boomers aged, they moved out of the prime shopping demographic. Half of Boomers now live outside of the coveted 25-54 demographic.

And Gen-X, of which I am a charter member, is the generation of e-commerce. We created a sterile, drill-down, algorithmic environment fueled by the lowest price, one where Google indirectly skims pennies from all of us. The mall owned the retail merchant. Google owns the online merchant. If Baby Boomers perfected traditional brand advertising, we perfected e-mail marketing, paid search, affiliate marketing, and shopping comparison sites. Not one of those tools convey passion for merchandise, though e-mail marketing has a chance if it doesn't land in your junk mail folder.

Maybe the Millenials will save us. Maybe they will focus on merchandise, on the importance of creating something that somebody "has to have", something that doesn't come with a mandatory e-mail signup, or a 15% off offer if you sign up for credit. Maybe we'll learn that it is truly important for a brand to have 23,048 followers on Twitter.

Or maybe we'll pull out of this by having a few bold merchandisers who are willing take a stand. Maybe we need to give more authority to the Margaret Myers' of the world.