What’s Wrong with Department Store Marketing?


departmentstoremarketingI Grew Up a Mall Rat

I’m going to be honest here, I was a kid who lived the mall life just as the kids in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I went to department stores and hung out at malls, as the generation that grew up with them, watched them turn into commercial places of worship almost, and then wonder how they turned into such lumbering behemoths on the landscape taking up space. These days I feel a little like the Griswolds driving up to Wally World, looking at memories only.

I just read this article about brick and mortar retailers, and what experts are saying should happen, steps that should be taken to save the outdated models and businesses.

Can the American department store be saved?
10 retail experts weigh in

The article was mixed. There were some very interesting nuggets, but little beyond the “be innovative”, “take advantage of what you have” …. but the second half of the article got beefier and more interesting. With everyone focusing on millennials it’s becoming increasingly obvious people forget that there is more to millennials than teenagers and 25 year-olds. It’s not just about the juniors’ departments. Do not forget the baby boomers, either, since they are a huge population, now going places with their caregivers, who are typically neither boomers or millennials.

Who IS your audience already, who CAN be your audience easily, and who do you WANT your audience to be eventually, … and who will those people be when you’re ready for them?

Run a Business from inside the Boardroom,
but Market from Outside of it

One expert discussed the “Ron Johnson” effect, referring to the CEO who took JC Penney into a downward spiral at speeds that caused shock and near decapitations not so long ago. The praise offered was about how department stores need to innovate and take risks. Yes. the idea may have been spot on for the long haul, to be disruptive, change the way people shop and consider department stores, but his approach lacked the very core of marketing awareness, which is understanding your customer, and listening to your marketing team.

Penney’s was the absolute WRONG vehicle for this radical change, at least at the pace it was set up. He took one of the most beloved and successful brands and in less than a year, the company was trashed. Do not change for the sake of change, and do not market from inside the boardroom. While there are always exceptions (and of course, his tenure at Apple indicated he believes exceptions to be the norm), it showed the world outside the audience he knew, who were privileged sheeple who have the means and interest to push forward at lightning speed regardless of value or reward. That is not the Penney’s customer mindset. Do not forget the brand when making change, and work with your audience to implement.

When the Class Favorite Missteps

Moving along, the stumblings of all-time favorite and strong hold, Nordstrom, came up (it’s worth noting that the forever bastion of stability is one of the younger department stores in the main populous here, really only entering the lower 48 in the late 70s, early 80s with the fuller exposure occurring in the late 80s. That’s pretty young by comparison, and considering the economy at the time, not really an arduous climb up the mid-high end consumer scale at the time). They were uniquely placed, and insightful, during the economic downturn to be situated between two huge economic populations, and deliberately reached out to both to catch them. But now they’re stumbling a bit.

From a marketing standpoint they followed what they were supposed to do, per the articles and “experts”. They followed the masses, and marketed by the numbers. Nordstrom did something very important recently, that was monumental to their core business and audience, that everyone seems to forget, or worse, perhaps still do not realize they did.

The former shoe store, who’s rise to fame grew on the high quality leather fashion needs and wants of their ever growing and financially improving audience, did away with its semi-annual shoe sale event. Talk all you want about economics, advertising, loyalty, enticements, etc., but do not, I repeat, do NOT take away your core customers’ main reason for liking you in the first place. No longer is there the incredible opportunity for huge deals on high end shoes at levels of inventory unparalleled in other regularly scheduled promotional markdowns. It was a mistake, one that they’re feeling now, and that other retailers with less elite attitudes are gaining from through their own closeout deals.

And there’s very little focus on the personal shopper experience anymore. This was also a core feature that set them apart from the huge variety of malls and department store offerings, their focus on SERVICE, which others, before The Very Hungry Caterpillar that is Macy’s bought them all up. They’ve missed a huge opportunity to reach the male audience in the latest generations, or help the fashion-challenged hipster-wannabe curate the look of someone who wants to look like fashion isn’t important. But, go ahead, say it’s the “promotion pressure.”

Enough with the Holidays

Honestly, I stopped reading when the bit about Macy’s not promoting seasonal, holidays, or special events. That’s just a ridiculous statement. And while we’re on it, Macy’s has gotten too big and has taken over too many department stores to have a claim to nostalgia, authenticity, or credibility. The different quality and caliber of the stores is insulting to mobile audiences who visit different stores. The experiences are vastly different, and the inferior quality of offerings is insulting and unreliable. Their brand has suffered because they are spread too thin.

Time to Sit up and Listen — but Hurry

Stores are marketing to 80s consumerism mentalities and shoppers. They stopped listening to their customers when the dollars were rolling in, and now only listen to their crony board members who want more dollars. With some of the most enviable opportunities and real estate at their fingertips, shoppers (including those of us who are marketers) are saddened and horrified at the lack of initiative, but also resourceful in getting what we need and want somewhere else. If department stores and malls don’t change, they will fall off as others continue to listen and change to support the customers.

Do you think traditional department stores can be saved? Do you think they will be?

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