Rachel Williamson: “If you are in retail, you must become a student of your customer”

For Rachel Williamson, the act of “going shopping with friends, family or even by yourself is ingrained in our culture”. Today we speak with the Founder and President of Running Great Stores, a Retail Consultancy firm focused on Brick and Mortar Store Operations. 

1. We start by assessing the current context of the retail sector. Will the Brick and Mortar retail disappear?

I don’t believe Brick and Mortar retail will ever disappear. The act of “going shopping” with friends, family or even by yourself is ingrained in our culture. Certainly, the face of brick and mortar retail is changing and will continue to change. The customer experience, how we make them feel when they are in our store, is vital to the experience. And that experience, done well, cannot be replicated on a mobile device.

2. What are its defects in front of the online retail? 

The defects, in my opinion, come down to 3 issues.

  • The fisrt and biggest one is the lack of engagement, emotional connection with the customer. Too many retailers still view customers as transactions.
  • The second defect is stores lack the assortment of merchandise that online offers. Many retailers have done this to themselves. They get in a great new collection, market it to their customers via email, instagram, etc. The customer heads to the store to try it on, feel the fabric, but when they walk into the store, the store associate tells them they don’t carry it and will order it for them. So what has happened? The sale was just pushed to the online channel and the retailer tells themself “see, customers are all shopping online”. It is a vicious cycle that retailers are inflicting on themselves.
  • The third largest issue that I can see is that retailers are not seamless with their online/offline experience. If customers have shopped online, they want the store to know what they bought. If we are talking apparel, it helps the customer remember what is in their closet. The customer views a retailer as a brand, not as online or in-store.

The act of “going shopping” with friends, family or even by yourself is ingrained in our culture

3. And how about its virtues?

As far as virtues go, the in-store experience, done well, does a couple things for the customer.

  • It reinforces how the customer feels about themselves. A good in-store experience makes the customer leave feeling like they can take on the world.
  • Secondly, customers want to feel the fabrics and see what things fit like… Even with the sizing technology that online utilizes, many times it is inaccurate and the customer is frustrated by it.

I would rather get in the car and go shopping, get instant gratification (leave the store with a bag) than buy online.

4. So, what type of things drive you online? 

Well, the only thing that drives me online is when the store doesn’t carry the inventory or if it is a commodity item. The convenience of something showing up in a day on your porch is great for dog food or party supplies, less so for apparel, shoes, handbags, makeup… These are all things I want to experience… That is how I justify what I spend on the item. I recently bought a Louis Vuitton handbag. I could have ordered it online and they deliver pretty quickly… But I wanted to really get my money’s worth with the experience that came from buying it in the store. So I drove to the store, looked at all the options, walked around with it, looked at it in the mirror… 30 minutes later, made my decision. Watching them place it in the dust bag, in a box and in the large shopping bag was all part of spending that much on a bag that I know someday I will leave to my daughter. The same day, I placed an online order for a dozen of my favorite pens that came in a day to my front door. For $20, I didn’t require the same experience.

I recently bought a Louis Vuitton handbag. I could have ordered it online but I wanted to really get my money’s worth with the experience that came from buying it in the store

5. What is the biggest problem or weakness that Brick and Mortar has to face?

Brick and Mortar stores has many hurdles to overcome and some will do it better than others. Just having a good experience alone will not guarantee the retailer will make it through this new retail reality. Getting great people to work in these stores, filled with amazing products in an environment that is experiential are all critical.

6. And what about technology?

Technology is also going to be a requirement, but technology without the human component won’t guarantee success. Technology is key in creating the seamless customer experience between channels. But tech without great experience delivered by great people is not a silver bullet. The right behaviors must accompany the technology.

Technology without the human component won’t guarantee success

7. So… Good experience, great people, amazing products and technology… Is this the magic recipe for a store to work?

Well, I could add one more comment here… Retailers should not underestimate the value of an operationally well run store staffed with talented people who genuinely care about the customer. Now the inventory levels must be right and the physical plant of the store must be right. Retailers aren’t investing in maintaining their stores and this makes them unappealing to shop in. The marketing should tell a compelling story. I believe clienteling, done well, will be an important service. There is great technology out there that can deliver this but, again, when the day is done, the associates working in the store have to care about the customer and follow up with her/him. Many boutiques offer clienteling but once you sign up, you never hear from them again. Behaviors must be there to support the technology.

8. How is customer loyalty achieved?

Loyalty is achieved through many channels, but at the end of the day, customers are loyal to a brand who ‘gets them’ and works to give them what they want, when they want it. And this is the hard part. What the customer wants continues to evolve. And successful retailers need to pay attention to their customers and evolve with them, or even ahead of them. There are furniture brands like Ethan Allen and Restoration Hardware who sell memberships to get discounts every day. On high end furniture, the membership is $100 but can save you more than that on one item. For me, RH bought my loyalty because I want their look and I want the best price I can get. So I buy ALL my furniture from them. 12 months no interest always, 25% off every day… It’s a no brainer, but for apparel, the formula is more complicated. I am not sure if I would pay for a membership at an apparel retailer… Maybe I would for Tory Burch or MaxMara. I would love 25% off their brands every day.

At the end of the day, customers are loyal to a brand who ‘gets them’ and works to give them what they want, when they want it

9. Let´s talk about future…

Well… I believe that Brick and Mortar will make a strong comeback. It won’t look like what we have seen for the past twenty years… I think small and unique businesses will resurge and sustainability is on everyone’s mind. Building community will be key. If you are in retail, you must become a student of the industry and a student of your customer. Being a student of your customer means you get to know them, what matters to them… You listen to them and then you curate a store that inspires them. I have been in NYC for the past several weeks visiting every retail pop up and start up I can. Some are experimenting with interesting things and others haven’t quite figured it out. But ultimately, whatever the store ends up looking and feeling like, one thing will be true, operational excellence – the fundamentals of running a store – will always be a critical component to their success.

THANK YOU 🙂