When it comes to merchandising, many companies have forgotten that it's not about them. They've forgotten why customers came to them in the first place, and their catalogs have simply become containers of items for sale. In essence, they're desperately in need of a revival and don't even realize it.
I've been noticing this trend in my strategic consultation with companies across the country. Products are presented in a mishmash array — without emotional connections — and essentially are pushed onto customers. They're not created by and for customers, and they lack sensory appeal. "Me-too" imitation products. Ho-hum lackluster products. As a result, sales are down and customer apathy is up.
I noticed that Don Libey and Christopher Pickering referred to the "heartbreak of customer service" in their new book on RFM ("Libey and Pickering on RFM and Beyond," MeritDirect Press, $59). At times, I must say that I feel the same way about merchandising.
So, it's time to get purpose-driven about your products. Here are five pragmatic suggestions on how to revive your product line before your competition does it for you. (You may recall how NetFlix out-marketed Blockbuster at its own game, or how Southwest and JetBlue continue to outperform the big, bankrupt airlines. They've succeeded by building more customer-centric products and services than the industry leaders. It can and does happen all the time.) Here's what you should consider.
1. It's all about your customers … all the time. That is, your days of one-shot "customer service" questionnaires and one-time focus groups are over. Don't check "customer research" off your to do list this way. Your customers aren't static, and your interactions with them shouldn't be, either.
Staying close to the customer is everyone's job. Like a healthy marriage, "dating" customers is part of the long haul of being attentive and in-tune. Consider these questions:
- Do you know what your customers need from you? They won't tell you.
- Are you reading between the lines, observing and anticipating? You pick up these important cues by hanging out with customers — in their worlds.
- Have you walked a mile in their shoes? You should become their favorite pair of slippers.
You need to surprise and delight them. RedEnvelope gets this. The slippers this gift cataloger sells not only are fluffy, but they're also monogrammed and therapeutic. Give your customers more than they know what to ask for!
2. Customers should be part of the product development process. Remember how everyone likes to be in the kitchen on big family holidays while the head chef lovingly rattles off assignments: "You mash the potatoes!" "You stir the gravy!"? People like the opportunity to contribute. With this in mind, ask yourself some more key questions:
- How can you invite your customers into your product creation, selection or editing process?
- Do you have a panel of merchandising experts "on call" (or e-mail)? Better yet, can you have them right in the thick of it with you as co-creators? Innovation is yours for the asking. Just ask.
Jones Soda does this when it solicits customer photos and quotes for product labeling. Ben & Jerry's routinely asks customers for ideas on potential, quirky flavor combinations. Customer engagement is an integral part of both brands. Needless to say, both brands have raving fans and so, too, can most catalogers.
3. Mind the brand. Products often become purposeless because they lose their anchor to the brand. New offerings somehow slip into the line and you realize (often too late) that they really weren't yours to sell … they were meant for your competitor.
Pat Connolly, Williams-Sonoma's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, once said about this at an industry event, that in some ways it was more important to Williams-Sonoma's brand what wasn't in its catalog than what was. The editing process was fundamental to success.
Without a solid brand positioning statement followed by a brand-enhancing product fit chart, products actually can start to work against your brand. Perhaps more importantly, they can create a great deal of customer confusion.
Go through your offer in your catalog, store and Web site, and mark which products enhance your brand and which ones detract from your brand. Then do the same with your top three closest competitors. Do you blame customers for being apathetic when so many companies don't take the time to focus and differentiate? Don't lose customers because you're lazy. Do your homework.
4. Go ahead, be a control freak. Despite what some therapists might say, being a little controlling can be a good thing. Products need some looking after before they get to customers! Excellent merchants will indeed sweat the details from production to presentation elements and everything in between. Ask the following:
- Is this green just the right shade?
- Is this gift packaging "gifty" enough?
- What will our customers think of this new paper stock?
All five senses come into play and importance here — no detail is too trivial. Lands' End created a recent campaign based on all the details it thought customers cared about when buying clothes without touching them and trying them on in person. The catalog showed close-ups of buttons, seams, stitches, fabric texture. Lands' End's executives wanted their customers to know that someone cared about these "little things" as much as they did.
Your products will become more purposeful if someone is watching over them every step of the way through the picky lens of a customer.
5. Revive, and then some. Purpose-driven merchandising is a perpetual thing. Perhaps your original products were the brand (think L.L. Bean and those hunting boots). But somewhere in your company's growth and progress, you lost track of your humble beginnings.
Ah, but you can go back home again. Look at those original product icons for your brand. Can they be revived, reinvented or repurposed in some way? Companies often are sitting on a treasure chest of past winners that can be updated or reinvigorated in some new and novel way. Go there. Get back to your roots.
L.L. Bean merchants add new joy each season to their famous boat tote. They make the best use of colors, patterns, monograms, shapes, sizes and container-ability (holder of blueberry breakfast fixings for everyday and flower bulbs for seasons!). They've even introduced a new target audience to totes — pets. L.L. Bean understands its roots, revisits them often and nurtures them for future growth.
Purpose-driven merchandising is intentional. Promise your customers (and yourself) that you'll take it seriously. Your brand will thank you, as will your customers.
Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a strategic consultancy based in Colorado. Contact her at email@example.com.