Updated: Jul 29
Retail leaders can change the world
In the early years of the 20th century, American retail evolved into a selling stage of dreams and desire. The great merchant princes at the time learned to capitalize on the aspirations and hopes of the shopping public. Helen Landon Cass, a popular radio personality, told a display convention in 1923: “Sell them their dreams. Sell them what they longed for and hoped for. Sell them this hope and you won’t have to worry about selling the goods.”
The great merchants of today recognize that desire isn’t merely about wanting the latest electronic device or a fashionable designer handbag. Rather, it’s about believing in something and standing up for that belief. Retailers today must recognize the concerns, challenges, and convictions of an enlightened and forward-thinking customer base. As business leaders face the realities of post-pandemic customer engagement, they must look introspectively and ask an existential question: Why are we here? What would the world miss if we didn’t exist? What contributions have we made to the community?
Mark Twain, the celebrated 19th-century novelist said, “The most important days of your life are the day that you were born, and the day that you figured out why.” Some will say that we are here to do good. In fact, some say that “doing good” is cool. And who is saying that? The shopping public is saying that. Particularly millennial shoppers. The retailers who recognize this are the retailers who will succeed. The retailers who understand that it’s not about selling in the post-pandemic world, but rather it’s about giving, are the retailers who will define the future.
Before putting pencil to paper, the retail design process begins with three simple questions: Who are you? What do you have to say? How do you say it? Today, however, that roadmap to strengthening and defining a brand image must go a step further.
While teaching store design, or presenting to a group of retail executives, I’ve often posed the question: Why do we love Apple as much as we do? After hearing answers such as their cutting-edge technology, ease of use, and regular software updates, I proposed that we love Apple because everything they do, from the packaging to the product, is beautifully designed. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s that, and so much more.
There are many brands to choose from when purchasing a computer. Dell, Microsoft, and Acer all make excellent computers, and they let us know that they do. They all begin the dialogue by telling us how great their computers are, how easy they are to use, and how sleek and beautifully designed they are. They’re confident that this pitch will inspire us to buy their product.
It’s clearly recognized that Apple also makes great computers, but the differentiator is that they begin the dialogue with why they make great computers. They tell the consumer who they are, what they have to say, and how they say it. They tell the consumer what they believe in.
We buy Apple computers, smartphones, tablets, and wearable devices because they stand for something: A commitment to well-being, making a positive difference in society, and challenging the status quo – they dare to be different. Their vision statement reads: “To make the best products on earth and to leave the world better than we found it.” They continue the dialogue by saying that they challenge the status quo by making products that are sustainably produced, beautifully designed, and easy to use. After explaining what they believe in, or why they exist, they feel confident in asking us to buy their product. Apple stands above the others because they invest in their beliefs, they invest in a purpose.
Loyalty begins with why a company does what they do, rather than with what they do and how they do it. Simply stated, and this is more cogent today than ever before, people don’t buy what you do, rather, they buy why you do it. Apple recognizes that the people who buy their products believe in what they believe in. When someone buys an Apple product, they are connecting to the same ideals. They buy into the Apple story and belief system, and want to be a part of that culture.
Why do we love Nike? Why do we buy their products? It isn’t because they tell us that they make a great sneaker. Rather, it’s because they tell us about their purpose; about why they exist. “Our mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. [*If you have a body, you are an athlete.] This mission drives us to do everything possible to expand human potential.”
Then they tell us how they accomplish this noble mission. “We do that by creating groundbreaking sport innovations, by making our products more sustainably, by building a creative and diverse global team, and by making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.” Consumers around the world identify with their mission. That’s why they continue to support the brand.
Clearly, retailers are in business to make a profit. But it’s the enlightened retailer who also wants to make a difference. Customers will lend their support to brands that are supportive of them. Doing good in the world has become a product offering and an attribute of the brand. Economist Milton Friedman advanced the narrative that the only social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits. He championed the notion that shareholder interests should be assigned first priority relative to all other corporate stakeholders. The natural deduction here is that a corporate leader works for the shareholders. Bob Dylan told us, “The times they are a-changin,” and indeed they are.
As we venture deeper into the 21st century with higher levels of social awareness and empathy, it’s high time to expand the aperture and look at the world through a broader lens. While Louis Sullivan told us that “form follows function,” retailers of today and tomorrow must realize that profit follows purpose. The time is now for courageous retailers to stand up for more noble causes. It’s time to focus on human value rather than monetary worth. It’s time to focus on the capital of caring.
This thought piece was originally shared in November 2022.
Revisiting This Thought
AN UPDATE FROM THE AUTHOR
As retail evolves with the changing times, brands continually strive to position themselves favorably in the minds and hearts of the shopping public. Ultimately, retailers are in business to make a profit. But it’s the enlightened retailer who also wants to make a difference.
The visionary and empathetic retailer understands that customer loyalty begins with why a company does what they do. Simply stated, people don’t buy what you do, rather, they buy why you do it. It should be noted that doing good in the world has become a product offering and a vital attribute of the brand.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ERIC FEIGENBAUM, MEDIA RDI
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. His career includes working in four different sectors of the industry. As a retailer, he served as Corporate Director of Visual Merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a Division of Federated Department Stores, for fourteen years. In that capacity, he played a key role in the design and development of seven new stores and ten major renovations. He also served as the chair of Federated’s Visual Directors’ Team.
On the design side, he was the Director of Visual Merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design consultancy located in New York City, specializing in retail design worldwide. In that role, he helped bring visual merchandising to Asia and South America and was involved in the design of stores in South Korea, Japan, Chile, and Peru. He was also a key contributor in the application of WalkerGroup’s proprietary service Envirobranding®, which promotes the physical store environment as an integral component of a company’s projected brand image.
In the educational sector, he was the Chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College in New York City from 2000 to 2015, where he created the first four-year BBA degree program in visual merchandising, and the first masters degree program in visual merchandising. A pioneer in advocating an eco-friendly approach to visual merchandising and store design, Feigenbaum is responsible for conceiving and designing the state-of-the-art LIM College Green Lab – a sustainable materials lab and research center. Additionally, he was an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Currently, he is the president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design. With many responsibilities, he also works in the editorial sector as the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD Magazine, and the Director of Workshops for WindowsWear.
Feigenbaum has been the recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards. In 2012, he was awarded the industry’s highest honor, the coveted Markopoulos Award. Professor Feigenbaum has lectured all over the world on visual merchandising and store design including presentations at the World Retail Congress and the National Retail Federation as well as presentations in Seoul and Ulsan South Korea; Fukuoka, Japan; Santiago, Chile; Hong Kong; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil; Dusseldorf, Germany; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; Bogota and Medellin, Colombia; and Milan and Ancona, Italy.
Feigenbaum is also a founding member of PAVE Global (previously known as, A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education) and is regarded as one of the top experts and visionaries in the Visual Merchandising and store design industries.