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October 21, 2006
The Tale of Retail

Retail-wise, it’s been an interesting month in my city. Trader Joe’s in. Tower Records out.

Since quite a lot of transplants live in my city, Trader Joe’s has been a long time in coming. It’s not the biggest grocery store, nor it is the cheapest. And most of the packaged goods you’ll find there come under their own private label brand. But it’s got a product mix and a vibe to it that draws people there. Amazing for a chain that, as far as I know, does little advertising except for its cleverly written monthly flyers. They’ve built a loyal customer base by building a business few others can duplicate.

Conversely, Tower Records is now going out of business. Once, Tower was the place you could go where you’d be able to find whatever obscure CD you might want, and discover a few things you’d never heard before. But in the end, Tower didn’t have enough customer loyalty. Everyone knows the confluence of forces that joined together to put the squeeze on music stores.

Here’s the rub: I’ve rarely bought anything at Tower in the last few years, but I’m sorry it’s closing.

Advertising and marketing professionals are falling over themselves to increase their presences online. So what can we do for our retail clients to help them survive?

In 2006 if you truly want to avoid shopping altogether, you can. Most everything is for sale online, and even groceries can be delivered.

But retail stores won’t go away. They do, however, have to offer something not found on the web.

Humans are tribal beings, and we like to get together in groups and engage in commerce in a social setting. We like to see the merchandise and touch it before we buy. Or we like to watch other people as they do those things. Strange to say, but I’ll often go out to a mall the day after Thanksgiving just to observe the sheer lunacy that is Black Friday.

There’s no question, though, that many people simply hate shopping. They hate finding a parking spot in a crowded lot, rude or inattentive sales clerks, and the frustration of not finding what they're looking for.

If we’re truly a creative business, then we can help fix this.

I believe the ad industry can play a role in helping clients in the retail business improve their customers’ experiences when they shop. Bad ads aren’t the problem, bad stores are. Yet most ad agencies would rather have their creative teams chained to their cubicles and concepting in a vacuum, rather than walking around their clients’ stores to see if there are ways to make shopping more pleasant. Any research that’s done gets summarized in a PowerPoint deck, and we all know how much creative people pay attention to those.

The issue, of course, is that ad agencies make money from advertising, not by suggesting retail improvements. A store could take half its advertising budget, allocate the money towards improving its customer service (or training & paying employees), and make itself more appealing to customers. But if you work in ad agency, don’t you dare suggest that. The agency needs the cash.

Perhaps a creative approach to retailing could have saved Tower Records. Perhaps not. But as I walked in there last week, perhaps for the last time, it occurred to me that the store hadn’t much changed from 15 years ago—only with more DVDs and less cassettes.

I’ll definitely toast the memory of many hours spent of Tower Records, and I'll make the toast with a glass of Two-Buck Chuck. Those of you in the know will know exactly what I mean.

What’s most interesting to me is that if you look for Trader Joe’s products online, forget it. They don’t have much of an online presence. Rather, you have to go there, get your groceries, and to pay—you stand on line. Which plenty of people are perfectly willing to do at Trader Joe’s.

Proving that while our industry gains online experience, we can’t forget the value of the customer experience.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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