By Anne Kingston - Friday, March 22, 2013 - 0 Comments
Lessons from Bed, Bath & Beyond’s ‘towel-gate’
Recently, Neatorama, a popular blog, caused a big stir when it published a photograph taken at housewares emporium Bed Bath & Beyond. The snapshot was hardly scandalous: it revealed that the rows and rows of colourful towels stacked to the ceiling that greet shoppers in the chain’s stores are in fact a mirage—they’re actually a handful of towels draped over undulating foam-rubber backing to appear like stacks of towels.
On one level, it was all a big joke—“Towel-gate,” as Daily Beast dubbed it. Yet the faux outrage was clearly animated by something else—surprise, even betrayal. It was as if the picture offered evidence that maybe the retail abundance North American consumers take as a birthright—overwhelming displays and continually replenished inventories—may itself be backed with foam.
The consumer of the early 21st century can be forgiven for believing that retail resources are infinite. Just look around: T-shirts piled high at Old Navy, walls of toothpaste at Shoppers Drug Mart, ever-fresh shipments at H&M, tables laden with polyester tools of seduction at Victoria’s Secret. Shoppers expect plentiful, ever-changing display, says Joe Mimran, the founder and creative director of Canada’s top budget brand, Joe Fresh (and, before that, Club Monaco): “Basic Retail 101 is all about density,” he says. “Our visual team is constantly reworking the displays to showcase the new product that arrives each week.”
Retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, is bemused by the reaction to Bed Bath & Beyond’s ability to make four towels look like 24. “Retailers have been doing this for years,” he says. “I think it is curious that the shopper hasn’t realized the degree to which it is all theatrical.”
A sense of plenty triggers optimism and positive emotion in shoppers, which makes them buy, says psychologist Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. The perception of scarcity, on the other hand—stores where the shelves look as if they’ve been decimated by zombies—engenders a defensive, preservation mode that encourages hunkering down, not heading to Zara. “It feels better to go into a store that has 12 rows of Coke rather than one with four rows and eight empty rows on the shelf,” Schwartz says. But it’s not just the benefit of fullness versus emptiness; it’s many versus few: if you see 12 rows of Coke rather than a modest display of one row, you’re simply more likely to buy a Coke.
Plentiful display telegraphs tacit permission, says Steve Hall, a Dallas retail display consultant who started his career at Gap Inc. “When there’s a lot of something, it’s easier to take one,” he says. Underhill agrees: “It suggests you’re free to take as many as you want—or more than you need,” he says. It also benefits retailers who have less back-room storage space than they used to: “In a typical Sears Canada of 1960, maybe 30 per cent of space was storage; today it’s 10 per cent,” says Underhill.
Abundant merchandising is about selling the forest, not the tree: it’s not just the 50 turtlenecks, but a sweeping variety of colours that also distracts shoppers from the quality of one product. Colour and lighting are crucial, Mimran says: “We look for colours to pop in an impactful way.” There’s a reason the Bed Bath & Beyond model is the norm, Mimram points out: “You can take a very basic item and when you see it repeated through the kaleidoscope of colour, you get transfixed; it’s elevated.” Colour also prevents “repetition blindness,” says A.K. Pradeep, author of The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind, to describe what happens to shoppers’ brains when they’re faced with too much of the same thing. “Too many of the same thing isn’t seen as abundance, it’s a Xerox,” Pradeep says. And that’s a turn-off for shoppers.
It’s no accident that the rise of department stores in the 19th century, which banished the shopkeeper as sentry for goods hidden behind the counter or in the back, came at a time when shortage and scarcity were threats to large portions of the population. France’s Le Bon Marché and America’s Macy’s transfixed shoppers with excessive displays intended to convey a sense of luxury. With seemingly endless supplies of goods, the first department stores served as cultural pacifiers, creating a symbolic meaning of surplus and comfort. Today mass chains, along with online shopping, provide the same effect. The true “palace of LIES!” sham isn’t that retail resources are more finite than they seem: it’s that consumer resources are, too—with the schism between rich and poor widening, and the “99 per cent” seeking relief at Costco. The result? Average consumer debt in Canada now stands at a record high of $27,485 (not including mortgage debt) per adult, according to credit-monitoring firm TransUnion.
As in the 19th century, goods displayed in volume encourage shoppers not only to spend more, but to want more, and they do so by creating imbalance, says Hall. “Nature abhors a vacuum, so the shopper becomes the vacuum. You almost feel obliged to take one.” Crowded floors trigger another reaction: the expectation of aggressive discounting—and getting a bargain, says Underhill. It’s a format that appeals particularly to women, he says, citing research that shows women view shopping as “treasure hunting.” “When there are more things on the floor, there are more things to sort through.”
A perfect exemplar of abundance merchandising is retail’s current darling, Uniqlo, the $12-billion, Japan-based, 846-store chain named 2010 International Retailer of the Year by the U.S. National Retail Federation. Walking into their vast stores (which have yet to come to Canada, though rumours are flying) is like entering an ecosystem calculated to elicit consumer vertigo—and fuel the adrenalin of want: interiors are wallpapered with thousands of items stacked floor to ceiling and arranged in a stunning array of hues. (As at Bed Bath & Beyond, sleight of hand is involved: when Uniqlo managers noticed that the towers of jeans sagged at the top, cardboard-backed “dummy jeans” were inserted on the highest rows.) The vast range of colour masks the fact that the actual selection is limited: one polo shirt, for instance, comes in 80 colours.
Abundance shouldn’t be confused with actual choice, says Schwartz, whose 2005 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that the greater number of decisions foisted on consumers doesn’t mean more options and can even lead to unhappiness. “Abundance means you walk into a store and the shelves are piled high; they don’t have to be piled high with different things,” he says. Ultimately, most choices on the consumer level are trivial—picking mint versus cinnamon toothpaste. Yet the time spent deciding imbues them with import, he says: “What ought to be a five-second process becomes a five-minute process.”
The dynamic is intensified by the abundance-scarcity paradox most evident in “fast-fashion” chains, says Underhill: inventories are replenished once, sometimes twice a week. Consumers follow that lead: the average Zara customer, a survey found, doesn’t expect to wear what she buys more than about 10 times. And though stock may be plentiful, the quick inventory turnover can prompt an “if I don’t buy it now, it will be gone” anxiety, which propels purchasing.
Scarcity fear offers a perfect foil to the ethos of abundance, which is why retailers stoke it with flash sales, pop-up stores and limited-edition designer collections, such as Crate & Barrel’s recent designer teapot promotion or H&M partnering with the high-end Italian brand Marni. It’s the ideal marriage of the abundance of mass retail with the ethos cultivated by Hermès and other high-end shrines, which showcase select products with museum-like reverence in a setting designed to draw attention to craftsmanship, status and exclusivity.
Online shopping extends the abundance-scarcity paradox ad infinitum with sites such as the OutNet and One Kings Lane, filled with high-end goods selling at deep discount (think Winners on the Internet). Yet consumers are oblivious to many of these manipulations, says Underhill, as reflected in the flap over simulated towel displays: “I think, if there’s one thing that characterizes 21st-century shoppers, it’s how naive they really are.”
By Rosemary Westwood - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:31 AM - 0 Comments
Freebies and discounts designed to tempt deal seekers
Your next cross-border shopping trip could be more than 2,000 km away. A luxe shopping centre, a theatre and a handful of high-end hotels in Dallas are launching “Canada Appreciation Month” in February, offering freebies and discounts in a bid to lure more shoppers and boost the $340 million that Canadians spend in Texas each year.
Anthony Wilkinson, head of tourism for NorthPark Centre, an upscale mall in Dallas, says Canadians are lured to Texas for big-ticket items, since there’s no luxury or state sales tax (419,000 Canadians visited Texas in 2011, up 12 per cent from 2010). The majority fly from Toronto, but also Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal. Dallas malls now offer Canadians on-site refunds for local sales taxes, and the competition for shoppers could grow. After Ottawa increased tax-free allowances at the border last June, travel to the U.S. jumped 7.5 per cent. Canadians spent a record $5.2 billion in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2012, with the dollar continuing to hover near parity.
A $500 Michael Kors bag “is probably going to be about $300 in Dallas,” notes Wilkinson, who’s practising O Canada for a “red and white” event to start Canada Appreciation Month. To make the $750 flight worthwhile, you’d only need to buy four of them.
By Ken MacQueen - Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 7:50 AM - 0 Comments
The billionaire co-creator of Twitter wants to change the world again—this time, rethinking the way we shop
It’s a Wednesday, so Jack Dorsey is sipping tea in a 20th-floor lounge of Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, chatting with a Maclean’s reporter about the Canadian launch of Square Inc.—a mobile credit card reader and business management system—and the second revolutionary idea he has helped create in his 35 years. Canada is the first stop in Square’s global expansion. “We want to carry every transaction in the world,” he’s said, never one to dream small. Wednesdays are reserved for marketing, communications and growth. As chairman and co-founder of Twitter, the ubiquitous 140-character micro-blogging site, and CEO and co-founder of Square, he’s learned to compartmentalize.
The rhythm of his San Francisco-based business week goes like this: Mondays are for management issues at the two private companies with multi-billion-dollar evaluations. Tuesdays it’s engineering and design. Wednesdays are for evangelizing the brands—tools, he believes, of a new world order. Thursdays are for outside business partners and suppliers. Fridays he tends to employees, performances and goals, and recruits talent for companies undergoing exponential growth. Sundays are for strategic thought, and job interviews. On the sixth day he rests. He remains an influential force as chairman of Twitter, but he’s more engaged in the day-to-day operations of Square. Continue…
By Scaachi Koul - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 9:26 AM - 0 Comments
In a deal to be announced on Thursday, U.S. retailer Nordstrom will be opening…
In a deal to be announced on Thursday, U.S. retailer Nordstrom will be opening locations in Canada.
After months of speculation, the retailer is expected to open in shopping centres in Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto. The move comes along with other U.S. retailers opening stores in premier shopping centres in Canada, like Target, Ann Taylor, and J. Crew.
Holt Renfrew also has plans to expand their total square footage of stores by 40 per cent nationally before the end of 2015.
By Tamsin McMahon - Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 9:42 AM - 0 Comments
Major retailers are embracing what used to be a guerrilla marketing move by the small guys
Maybe it’s a sign of our disposable culture that the temporary storefront has become a permanent fixture of the retail landscape. Pop-up shops, stores that set up at kiosks or in vacant storefronts for anywhere from a few hours to several months, have flourished across Canada.
In February, ahead of its Canadian debut next year, U.S. retailer Target offered an exclusive Jason Wu collection in downtown Toronto for just six hours, generating a frenzy among the city’s fashionistas and garnering national attention. Well.ca launched a virtual QR-code pop-up shop in Toronto’s Union Station in April. Skincare company Nivea opened “Nivea Haus” in Toronto and Montreal in March. Even the Food Network ran “pop-up restaurants” in Toronto and Vancouver to promote a show.
Pop-up shops have been around for nearly a decade, inspired by the guerilla marketing tactics of small designers who would temporarily inhabit storefronts, warehouses and alleyways because they couldn’t afford their own retail shops. Target was among the first major retailer to try the pop-up concept when it set up on a barge outside Mahattan in 2002. But while such events were once dismissed as passing fads, the pop-up shop has endured as retailers realize the no-commitment storefront is a cheap way to test new products. They also generate buzz with the novelty of get-it-before-it’s-gone commerce. “It’s a great way to create interest,” says Vancouver retail consultant David Gray of Dig360, who argues the concept isn’t used enough. “What’s going to get harder and harder is for it to remain novel. But it’s still so rare, I think it’s a long way from becoming truly mundane.”
By Joanne Latimer - Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 8:40 AM - 0 Comments
Canadians have a (delusional) wardrobe bias toward summer clothing
“It’s an odd form of denial,” says Alexandra Mélançon, creative director at Be Sleek, an image consulting agency in Montreal. “We have a wardrobe bias toward summer clothing in Canada. You don’t need 20 sundresses. You need 20 cashmere sweaters! It’s not like owning more shorts will create a longer summer.” Shame, that. “Those two weeks of perfect weather in July have a psychic grip on our imagination,” adds Caroline Alexander, co-owner of Ludique, a personal shopping service. “We have to talk people into balancing their wardrobes.”
Guilty! Facing a closet stuffed with sundresses, I lament packing them away. Mostly, I resent paying money for clothing that doesn’t fuel the myth of an endless summer. Catyanna Antoniou, a 23-year-old marketing student at York University, couldn’t agree more. “I own about 70 little dresses and 90 pairs of heels,” says the upcoming Toronto contestant on the reality show Princess. “If I have any baggy sweats or turtlenecks, it’s because I’ve stolen them from friends or my boyfriend. Eighty per cent of my wardrobe is for summer, with only about 20 per cent boring warm things.”
As the owner of the knitting store Americo Original, Nicole Sibonney is an unlikely person to exhibit summer shopping bias: “Oh, I have over 25 swimsuits—which I wear with linen pants—and I wear sandals through to the end of September,” she says. “It all creates a little fantasy. Psychologically, summer clothes take up less ‘room.’ ”
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 10:23 AM - 18 Comments
You ascend from the subway and check your phone. It tells you that you’re half a block away from an ice cream shop with a sale on single-scoops, ending in 8 minutes. You buy a cone through your phone, then pop into the store to choose a flavor. The girl behind the counter somehow knows your name.
That’s not sci-fi. It’s an app, just launched in Toronto from the group-buying site WagJag (owned by Torstar digital). WagJag Express offers users “geo-targeted” real-time deals. It uses your GPS co-ordinates to point you to bargains in your immediate vicinity. It’s a boon for merchants, who are growing weary of having to provide “deep discounts” of 50-90% to hundreds (if not thousands) of digital coupon cutters, who tend to show up and cash their chits in when it’s least convenient. Instead, local businesses can offer small handfuls of customers slight bargains at very specific times. If you’ve got a sales slump from 2:30-3:40pm, you can knock 15% off for 15 people and keep business moving. As customers track bargains through their iPhones, merchants track customers through their iPads. When I buy that ice cream cone on my smartphone, the girl behind the counter is informed of the sale on her tablet, which also tells her my name. Like I said, it’s a reality.
Now here’s some sci-fi: Continue…
By Erica Alini - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Hints of Asia are now visible in high-end European products. Is that what shoppers in India or China want?
High-end boutiques aren’t where most people would look for evidence of a shifting global balance of power. But “if you walk around Paris, or London, and you walk into one of these top-brand shops, 10 years ago you’d find one of the assistants would speak Japanese,” says Nick Debnam, a partner at KPMG, an accounting and advisory firm. “These days they have to speak Mandarin.”
Glitz-hungry Chinese consumers shelled out over $12 billion for luxury goods in 2010, setting their country on track to become the world’s third-largest market for the industry in the next five years, according to consulting firm Bain & Company. And with its own economic miracle, India is a tantalizing opportunity too. Already, the Asia-Pacific region, which excludes Japan, accounts for 17 per cent of the global $234-billion luxury goods market, according to Bain estimates. With market potential so gargantuan, Asia isn’t simply the next frontier for U.S. and European designers to conquer. It is a superpower mighty enough, it seems, to start imposing its own aesthetics on world-class bling.
Hints of Asia are already in the works of some high-end European designers. In November, Louis Vuitton re-edited 40 pieces from its 2010 Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter collections—this time using vintage sari fabric sourced in New Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore, among others. Chanel saluted the Shanghai EXPO 2010 with a “made for China” limited collection featuring traditional-looking items, such as bracelets with interlocking dragons, as well as benevolently ironic ones, such as the classic Chanel chain bag shaped as a Chinese restaurant take-away box. And Canali, the Italian luxury menswear designer, has re-invented suit jackets in the spirit of the maharajas in its India-focused Nawab collection.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 4:40 PM - 1 Comment
Gifts we’d give to the most memorable personalities of the year
The new mom of twins gets two Metro Babycotpod cribs ($595), a “Bandit” Doll ($65) from Vancouver’s the Cross (ships across Canada) and a Hudson’s Bay blanket, to keep her Canuck roots strong. For René Jr., the start of a broader musical education: “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings” (Columbia/Legacy, $130).
Infamous for her blood diamonds, compliments of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the supermodel could use some conflict-free bling: ethically sourced sapphires and Canadian diamonds from Brilliant Earth ($1,150).
A tea kettle, of course. How about this Michael Graves design from Alessi, along with a sample of soothing herbal brews? As for all those righteous tears, Beck could use a fresh pile of Paul Smith handkerchiefs ($42), all 100 per cent woven cotton. This striped one is nice, though he might also like the white one that says: “Bless You.”
By Jason Kirby - Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 11:40 AM - 0 Comments
Retailers are experimenting with a new way to earn outsized profits
Megamalls, superstores, big box—for years retail has been dominated by the mantra that bigger is better. But some retailers are experimenting with a new way to earn outsized profits: smaller stores. Several U.S. chains have begun shrinking the floor space and amount of inventory in their stores, and shoppers appear to love it. In one case, the clothing chain Anchor Blue has put in walls to shrink some of its stores by half. The result has been a 23 per cent increase in sales, despite fewer clothing options. Meanwhile, Bloomingdales’ new store in Santa Monica is just one-eighth the size of its Manhattan flagship location.
There are two benefits to the strategy, Paco Underhill, a retail consultant, told the New York Times. Smaller stores keep costs down by reducing rents and culling inventory levels. More importantly, given fewer choices, customers actually tend to buy more. “We have reached the apogee of the big box,” says Underhill.
By Jessica Allen - Friday, October 8, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
A bestselling food writer shows Maclean’s how to get the best out of grocery store shopping
Mark Bittman needs a camera. He wants to document the four-litre bags of milk in aisle one at Fiesta Farms, Toronto’s largest independent grocery store. “I’ve never seen this before. Milk in a bag! Only in Canada.”
The long-time New York Times food columnist is in Toronto to promote his newly published recipe collection, The Food Matters Cookbook. In general, he is not a fan of supermarkets—“most supermarkets’ goals are to sell you processed food and junk food, that’s where they make their money”—but this one, he concedes, is “a nice store.” Bittman is a larger-than-life character, tall and curmudgeonly, albeit with avuncular charm, who walks and talks like he just stepped out of a Woody Allen movie.
Readers of his 2009 bestseller Food Matters—which details his plan for eating responsibly, among other things—will know that Bittman is no fan of the industrial meat and junk food complex he calls Big Food.
By Chris Sorensen - Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 2:00 PM - 2 Comments
Cluttered big box stores move from the outskirts of town to online
Originally conceived as a way to off-load discontinued, overstocked and defective merchandise, outlet stores and outlet malls have become a key retail channel over the past decade as consumers chase big discounts on name-brand items. But a growing number of investors believe the future of outlet shopping doesn’t involve cluttered big box stores on the outskirts of town—it’s online.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, December 25, 2009 at 1:31 PM - 3 Comments
This Guardian story about holiday shopping leaves the slightly unsettling impression that “Boxing Day”, for the purposes of retailing, now begins in the UK at about 6 p.m. on the 24th of December. Maybe those billboards that plead with us to keep the Christ in Christmas should just be changed to request that the Christmas be kept in it?
By Andrew Potter - Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 12:40 PM - 23 Comments
You’d think it’s a good time for progressives to rethink the vote-with-my-wallet notion. The planet should be so lucky.
Americans have two great loves, eating and shopping, and their Thanksgiving holiday is the occasion when they enjoy both activities in all their gluttonous splendour. But while the central concern of most Americans last week was how to avoid getting trampled in the Black Friday stampedes at the mall, a more conscientious group was stressing over the morality of the holiday menu: should the vegetables be organic, or local?
It turns out that if you’re actually serious about taste, health benefits, and environmental impact, the correct answer is “neither.” The dispute between organic and local is one of those enormously high-strung civil wars that sweep through the environmental movement from time to time. And like its most notable predecessor, the paper-or-plastic conflict that raged across supermarket checkout counters in the late 1980s, this is one of those fights that is a genuine sucker’s game: the only way you can win is by not playing.
The jig has been up for organic for a while now. Originally promoted as the magic bullet of the produce aisle, with better taste, health benefits and environmental grades than regular food, organic has turned out to be none of those things. It didn’t help the organic brand that Wal-Mart started selling by the gross to the ambulatory eating machines of Middle America, but at least its defenders could cling to the idea that an organic tomato or lemon was more nutritious than its conventionally grown counterpart.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, November 27, 2009 at 9:13 AM - 3 Comments
Thanks for all the football on television yesterday. It kept Feschuk busy,…
Thanks for all the football on television yesterday. It kept Feschuk busy, and gave me something to do other than watch Two and a Half Men reruns.
P.S. Did you hear we got al-Jazeera?
By Jason Kirby - Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 12:00 PM - 4 Comments
With the dollar near parity, are we getting gouged again?
Last week marked the second anniversary of the Great Canadian Consumer Uprising. When the loonie surged 18 per cent in the first 10 months of 2007 it exposed huge price gaps between Canadian and U.S. retailers. In some cases, even with the dollar at par, Canadians were paying 25 per cent more. Shoppers in this country, normally a docile lot, revolted en masse. Even Finance Minister Jim Flaherty weighed in, chastising stores for gouging consumers. Yet last week was remarkable in its own right. In the first 10 months of this year the loonie once again jumped 18 per cent, and like before, it’s laid bare some price gaps between Canadian and U.S. retailers. But the response from shoppers this time around? Meh.
The shifting mood highlights two crucial developments that will be key to determining how retailers fare this vital Christmas shopping season. On the one hand, stores have renegotiated with suppliers to bring down prices, helping them be more competitive with U.S. rivals. But at the same time, shoppers are simply no longer so gung-ho that they’d hop in the car and wait hours at the border to save a few bucks on books, jeans and TVs. The lack of outrage suggests consumers simply don’t care anymore, or at least, can’t afford to. With the economy in shambles, they’re not shopping in either the U.S. or Canada. And that poses an even greater threat than cross-border shopping did in 2007. Continue…