Retail Guide: Shifting Gear

If retailers have learned one thing from the recession, it’s that the old rules no longer apply.

Faced with a dramatically different consumer landscape, storeowners are adjusting the way they do business and searching for new tactics to attract customers and drive sales. “The initial shock [of the recession] has worn off, and if [retailers are] going to continue to be in business for the next 10 years, they can’t stay idle,” said retail and merchandising expert Howard Ash of Howard Ash Inc. “They need to keep enticing the customers and sustain their relationships with [them] going forward.”

According to Ash, staying ahead of the curve can include anything from debuting new signage to incorporating fresh color palettes into the store design or merchandising scheme. “Stores need to be inviting and easy to shop,” he said. “Retailers have realized that if they just focus on tightening the distribution channel and product flow but don’t talk about what the customer sees, feels and touches, it’s not going to work.”

Jan Croatt, president of branding firm Winston Retail, whose clients include Converse, Nike and Puma, agreed that merchandising has become a key focus amid the current retail climate. “Brands are aggressively calling us to help [better] execute [their] product [vision] in the store,” she said.

Coming off a long period of heavy promotional activity, stores also are turning to regional marketing and advertising to gain an edge, she added. “Now that inventory levels are more in-line, there is not as much promotion driving the traffic. [So we’re seeing companies] start to invest more in brand recognition.”

Compelling, innovative store design is yet another way retailers are hoping to catch consumers’ attention. Shoebox New York last year unveiled a new concept that allows the store to easily switch out merchandise, and The Tannery in Boston debuted a one-stop shop format that brings together footwear, ready-to-wear and accessories. “What makes the [store’s] setup unique is that it gives the consumer three different experiences,” said Tarek Hassan, co-owner of The Tannery. “The environment speaks for itself.”

Other strategies include launching products aimed at a new audience, or introducing collaborations to generate fresh ideas. “[Firms] are presenting product differently and expanding to bring a whole lifestyle collection together,” said Croatt. “Some are even reinventing their branding position and taking on licenses [that bring them into new categories], such as entering women’s or children’s.”

Payless ShoeSource has capitalized on several collaborations. Its latest, with Isabel Toledo, is set to hit stores this fall. Other successful partnerships for the chain have included Christian Siriano for Payless and Alice & Olivia.

While the retail community is clearly ramping up its efforts, it remains to be seen whether the push will pay off in terms of sales numbers. Ash said he is optimistic. “Brands are alive again and they are passionate. Where we all sat around [before], now [companies] are focusing on how to bring the best experience to customers.”

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