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Posted Date: 3/28/2012

Art, Science and the World of Retail

By Jessica Binns
In today's world, it's no longer enough to understand and execute just the art or the technology and science of retailing. No, to thrive, apparel retail brands must perfect and marry both. That's the claim heralded by the Fashion Group International and The Robin Report, whose second annual retail symposium last week bore the title "The Jobsian Era Is Upon Us: The Art and Science of Retailing Converge."

Apple, the giant that Steve Jobs built, is always held up as an example of a company that brings an undeniable excitement to retail. Its products -- digital devices that could easily just be sold and shipped via e-commerce and distant distribution centers -- draw consumers into fabled Apple stores in huge numbers. What's more, the store experience itself, from the highly knowledgeable staff to the seamless, technology-enabled checkout process, keeps consumers coming back for more. And how many brands and retailers have throngs queueing up for virtually every new product launch?

Saks, Inc. chairman and CEO Stephen Sadove says his company is investing $85 million to $95 million in technology to become an omnichannel retailer over the next several years. "We thought our customers weren't shopping online, but we found that 50 percent of them were," he explains, adding that Saks is exploring how online marketing impacts in-store sales. "Omnichannel has an impact on everything you do -- it's a transformational time for everyone playing in this space."

Martine Reardon, chief marketing officer for Macy's, cites the company's motto and the driving force behind everything it does: "Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer." Part of astonishing the customer, she says, is finding out exactly who that customer is. The company's target consumer is a woman who shops both online and offline channels, and Macy's is shifting marketing dollars to the digital space to "hit that omnichannel customer," says Reardon.

Whether via smartphone, tablet, or laptop, Macy's wants to be mobile, according to Reardon, and is using QR codes throughout its stores to continue delivering "that similar [technology] experience." Indeed, the department store chain aims for "shoppertainment" -- a way to make shopping more fun for customers.

All about the brand
The Jones Group found itself going through a bit of an evolutionary period. "We didn't speak the brand language," says Richard Dickson, the group's CEO and president of branded business. Consumers had moved from general "stuff consumption" to having a relationship with a brand, he adds. Now, The Jones Group identifies its holdings more by brand than by category. Some brands, for example, appeal to Millennials, such as the Rachel Roy brand. Others, such as the established Anne Klein label, have a more mature demographic.

A whopping 62 percent of traffic to the Rachel Roy website arrives via Facebook, evidence of the brand's appeal to a younger generation. Yet Easy Spirit is The Jones Group's top-performing e-commerce business. Why? These shoppers want to avoid the hassle of malls and are more interested in researching products, explains Dickson. By contrast, Rachel Roy is all about the cool factor.

When it comes to branding, "before we tell anyone our story, we have to believe it ourselves," Dickson says. "Brands have an architecture. If you can't explain a brand in three words, you're not prepared to talk about it."

Information overload
We live in a data-driven world and managing the excess of information -- especially consumer data -- can be overwhelming, acknowledges Dickson. "Utilize information, put together an action plan and get traction with customers," Dickson says. Not every initiative will work out perfectly, but you can always learn along the way, he says. Reardon agrees. Dealing with information overload can lead to "analysis paralysis," she says.

Lights, camera, action
Both Saks and Macy's are involved with TV's new show, Fashion Star, the reality offering that sells its winning fashion designs immediately after each episode airs. The show helps Macy's deliver new and different products to customers, says Reardon."Fashion Star is more about marketing than commerce," she explains. "It helps us keep our brand out there."

Because Saks doesn't advertise on television, it's perhaps more unusual for the company to get on board with such a mainstream show, says Sadove. While the average Saks customer is worth "a couple hundred thousand dollars," the brand is trying to bring down the average customer age, and the show is essentially a "one-hour commercial about who Saks is," Sadove explains. So far, the collaboration seems to be boosting brand awareness. Sadove says website traffic has doubled when the show airs from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., and the company has seen an increase both in purchases related to Fashion Star and in new visitors to the Saks site.

Though much of the buzz and excitement in retail seems to focus on e-commerce, Sadove believes that physical stores offer an advantage. Even Amazon, which has transformed commerce with its online-only business, is planning to open a store in Seattle, according to news reports last month. "Pure e-commerce players can't even touch the art of bricks-and-mortar retailers," says Sadove.

Jessica Binns is an Apparel contributing writer based in Washington, D.C.

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