Disrupting the disruption of retail

Previously published Jan 10, 2017 on Geekwire.

Amazon’s appetite for disrupting retail appears as if it will never be sated. In the past two years, we’ve seen them launch bookstores, add a restaurant delivery service, integrate shopping capabilities into its voice-controlled home assistant Alexa, and beta test an innovative urban grocery store with a virtual checkout.

And they aren’t just innovating.

Amazon’s business results have also impressed. This holiday season Amazon doubled their volume of shipments from 3rd parties – a staggering number when you consider third party fulfillment is not a new offering.

While other retailers cannot keep pace with these volumes, nor with the pace of Amazon’s innovation, they aren’t exactly asleep at the wheel. Last May, I wrote about how born-on-the-web etailers have been opening stores to expand their reach in urban centers.

Meanwhile, traditional retailers, arguably those slow to initially react to the rise of e-commerce, are also fighting back. Filson, Eddie Bauer, and Nordstrom, all Seattle-based, are investing in differentiation, but each in their own way.

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I set out to do some holiday shopping and a bit of field research.

 

What would Eddie do?

After filing for bankruptcy twice, Eddie Bauer is returning to its mountaineering roots by focusing on performance-based apparel. It’s a crowded field that includes the likes of Patagonia, the North Face, and its in-town direct competitor, REI.

Over the past few years Bauer has been steadily investing in reinvigorating its brand with new campaigns as well as in-store investments to better align with its more focused strategy.

Bauer’s recently remodeled flagship store in Bellevue Square includes a walk-in “Ice Box” to let consumers try on apparel in below freezing temperatures. I must admit on hearing about this I thought it was a bit gimmicky, but, after a quick trial, the ice box is (forgive the pun) pretty cool.

 

 

Upon arrival I was surprised to find I didn’t need to sign a waiver or be escorted by a salesperson to enter the ice box (tip of the hat to Eddie Bauer’s Chief Counsel).

To properly kick the tires, I donned a down jacket and stepped inside. I was looking for something lightweight to wear skiing. I was skeptical that such a light weight jacket would be sufficiently warm, but the ice box field test worked great and assuaged any concerns. In this regard, the in-store experience completed my online research in a way no website could.

Bauer isn’t the first retailer to integrate in-context trial experiences into their stores.

REI’s Seattle flagship has a mountain biking trail and climbing wall. Brooks Running’s flagship store in Fremont integrates stride analysis and treadmills as part of its sales process. Such experiences are great for high consideration purchases where field use is key.

And, importantly, they differentiate the retail experience from what Amazon (presently) offers.

 

The Personal(ized) Touch

Like Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom is not immune to the challenges of adapting their business in the face of strong online competition and evolving customer needs. Earlier this year Nordstrom laid off hundreds including over 100 technology-related roles, but they haven’t stopped innovating in their e-commerce or in-store experiences.

Renowned for their service, Nordstrom has been exploring different means to play to their strengths. Armed with a very real gift-giving challenge, finding something suitable for my mother’s Christmas present, I decided to pit their recently launched chatbot-based gift recommendation service against an in-store personal stylist in a head-to-head challenge.

 

 

I started with the chatbot experience in hope of avoiding an in-store visit. Integrated directly into Facebook’s messaging client, the user experience of the chatbot was seamless.

However, right at the on-set, the questions didn’t inspire confidence. I was surprised to find age and gender of the recipient weren’t questions.

And the emoji-based questions felt forced. The resulting recommendations were either on-the-nose obvious (the Leica camera presumably derived from my camera emoji choice) or entirely inappropriate for a woman in her 70s (fake tattoos).

 

 

Common sense prevailed so I decided to try my hand with the personal stylist instead.

Right away, the stylist booking experience seemed promising. After selecting my preferred store, I was pleased to see they inquired about the gender of the recipient as well as the nature of the visit. Appointment types ranged from quick updates to multi-hour sessions.

I opted for a half-hour and then was asked to choose a stylist. I found this aspect of the experience wanting as there was nothing to distinguish the stylists save for their name and a clearly template-based description. After a frustrating scheduling process, I provided a briefing on my Mother’s size and preferred brands. An email confirmation arrived immediately.

A few days later, I made my way to the store for my scheduled appointment. As if sensing my location, I received a text message when I entered directing me to the 2nd floor. I was greeted warmly by my stylist, offered a bottle of water, and shown a dressing room laid out with a broad array of choices that were clearly tailored to my appointment.

 

 

I checked a few prices and quickly decided on a vest. I paid for my item, with no additional fees for the style consult, and was out the door with my gift-wrapped package within 15 minutes. Humans 1, chat bots 0.
What I loved about this experience was that it fused the convenience of technology with the human touch. Additionally, it was a great extension of the Nordstrom brand which places a premium on service. Armed with a gift for Mom, it was time to find something for my Dad; an avid outdoorsman and athlete.

Made in the USA

Founded in 1897, Filson is perhaps the longest standing retailer in the Northwest; preceding Nordstrom by 4 years. Getting their start outfitting the stampeders to the Klondike Gold Rush, Filson is dripping with heritage and authenticity.

Their new flagship store south of downtown Seattle is a love letter to active retail with its barn ceiling, open fire place, and integrated restoration department. While the store lacked a means to battle test their gear, they do stand behind it with a lifetime guarantee.

 

 

More than just a flagship store, Filson also does its manufacturing on site. Just below the store you’ll find scores of sewing machines and products in varying states.

Like Shinola, Filson’s partner in watch design, Filson is doubling-down on it’s made in America story which strengthens its brand and helps justify higher price points.

And while I didn’t find a gift for Dad, I did fine some great hiking boots for myself.

 

If there’s a pattern here it’s retailers finding new ways to tell their brand story by investing in the in-store experience. Forced to reduce costs and shift more business online, retailers will likely continue to shut doors in small markets.

Having fewer stores lets retailers invest in building out flagships in key markets which benefit from not only from international travelers, but also the reversal of urban flight. Cities are becoming increasingly dense which lets flagships do double-duty becoming galleries to market their brands to the affluent masses.

Of the three retailers reviewed only Nordstrom has gone to great lengths exploring different ways to drive users from site to store. Their size and capitalization gives them room to experiment through trials and acquisitions.

Other retailers, no doubt, will benefit from their public experiments, adopting those that work and adapting them to suit their brands and consumers.

There are few industries that adapt as quickly as retail. With Amazon keeping the pedal down we’ve got a front row seat on the future of retail – right in our backyard.

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