Letter From the Editor: Fresh Tracks

It’s a new day and a new dawn.

While the retail recovery still has a long way to go to match the industry’s once-lofty heights, the world is in a better place now that some of the doom and gloom has subsided.

There is tangible optimism in the air, as many brands and retailers start moving ahead again with the business of making business happen. And some important trends in marketing, consumer behavior, product development and retailing practices will foster new growth in both expected and unexpected ways.

Once again, the fleet of foot will be the winners in this unsettled and uncharted retail battleground. With shoppers still wary, only the best and brightest will be able to ride a new wave of revolutionary change to make the all-important connection between item, consumer and the checkout.

Here’s a look at five key areas of potential growth and evolution for vendors and retailers:

Apple’s latest rollout, the iPad, again proves that the company is untouchable when it comes to creating excitement and driving customers into stores, regardless of economic woes. Nike and a handful of other players aside, footwear has a spotty track record in trying to recreate the same magic. But things are getting better. The outdoor and athletic industries (a new level of product blending between the two camps sometimes makes it hard to separate them) are now onto the idea in a big way. Over the past year, niche market concepts in outdoor and athletic defined by product innovation — including toning and natural running — soared while retail was in the toilet. The jury may still be out on their long-term prospects, but the short-term bump in excitement and sales has everyone smiling. Now, the rest of the market is challenged to develop innovative product as similar growth vehicles.

The shopper’s across-the-board embrace of all things vintage proves that consumers find old-school, tried-and-true brands irresistible, especially when repackaged in sleek colors and new materials. But the story resonates a bit deeper than that. There is a comforting familiarity in established, high-quality styles that turn back the page to simpler times. In an era defined by uncertainty, these products give the impression that they can handle the tough road ahead. Expect the trend to continue to lift sales.

Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking tools are just the tip of the iceberg in the communication revolution. While some people find living online a tedious waste of time that impinges on real life, others can’t imagine life without it. Pro or con, there is no stopping this train. A large group of consumers now want more information from more sources — and they want it now. This may complicate things for retailers and brands, but it also allows a more layered, sophisticated and personal marketing approach that resonates with younger shoppers. But just spouting the terms and signing up for a Twitter account doesn’t automatically buy a ticket to prosperity in the new era. The trick is to figure out what works for your customer and move accordingly. Along the way, expect change to be a constant as the tools and processes of communication morph and morph again.

In an age when a customer expects total integration, the disparity between online and traditional operations is still a problem for too many businesses. Again, I hold Apple up as the gold standard. They operate beautiful stores that are part theater, part community gathering spot, part marketing tool. Their online strategy seamlessly and intuitively interfaces with those stores. Brands and retailers alike should work harder to showcase online content, promotions and customer outreach that is linked directly to the stores themselves. Today’s shoppers demand a total brand experience and anything less will result in frustration and lost revenue.

The recent recession seems to have had an interesting impact on customer service. Some companies took the opportunity to step it up and make it their calling card. Zappos.com is a perfect illustration. Talk to a customer and they don’t always cite the e-tailer’s incredible selection, but most will boast about the company’s industry-defining customer service. Unfortunately, too many firms used the recession as an excuse to run in the other direction and cut their level of service to the bone (major airlines, rental car firms and fast food operators, I’m talking to you). This is a time for every industry player to reassess their service strategy and level of commitment. My advice is to get on the service train in a highly committed and defined way. Set consumer expectations and then meet them. It will always pay off.

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