IRDC is my favorite conference. It’s large enough to attract great participation from retailers, designers and industry partners, but still small enough to have a wonderful culture of openness that makes it easy, comfortable, and even fun to meet new people, connect, and collaborate. I was thrilled that 2011’s IRDC was held in my own city of San Francisco and once again I walked away from a great week of diverse events, presentations and discussions feeling inspired. In an effort to keep those conversations going I thought I’d share some of what I found most inspiring.
Chip Conley, the founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, led a keynote discussion called “Understanding Shoppers’ Higher Needs.” First of all, the fact that Chip leads a hospitality company and not a traditional retail store, yet was invited to be a speaker at a retail design conference, is an important reminder that we’re all faced with the same issues: how can we truly understand our customers and their needs, deliver value, and ultimately create long-lasting loyalty? Chip has based Joie de Vivre’s business strategy on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and offered four strategies to help companies deliver peak experiences that meet even unrecognized needs for self-actualization:
- Offer your customers something of real value that they hadn’t even imagined.
- Give your customers the ability to truly express themselves.
- Help your customers meet their highest goals.
- Make your customers feel like they’re part of a bigger cause.
That last one really jumped out at me most, as it related directly to an IRDC roundtable discussion of visual merchandising trends that I led the next day. We’re all obsessed with the integration of technology in the retail environment, but we’ve reached the point where interactive technology is becoming a basic expectation, even a requirement, just like other standard fixtures, lighting, and display spaces. So, with technology as just another tool in the toolkit, how do we design environments that – through visual merchandising – really connect customers to the causes, ideals, and values that matter to them most?
Trendwatching’s most recent report acknowledges that “smart retailers realize that shopping in the real world will forever satisfy consumers’ deep rooted needs for human contact, for instant gratification, for the promise of shared experiences, for telling stories.” Some retailers, like Burt’s Bees, achieve this by telling more authentic stories of product origins through relevant materials, artwork and graphics – integrating the artisan within the retail space, demonstrating how products are made, and how they work. Other retailers achieve this by turning their stores into community centers, or centers of learning, demonstrating that the purpose of gathering is equal to – if not more important than – the purpose of selling product. It’s all about making connections in real, authentic ways. (Check out this feature story about Values-Based Retail developed by my colleagues Maureen Boyer and Alison Carr, based on their own 2010 IRDC presentation.)
Technology is certainly here to stay, and I’m excited about that. But I’m glad that it didn’t monopolize the agenda at this year’s IRDC, because I think there are bigger issues on the table. Whether a hotel, retail store, restaurant or bank, we’re talking about how customer experience can become more real, not more virtual, and I think that’s important to remember. It sounds like next year’s IRDC is already being planned for Chicago and I’m already looking forward to the debate.
Michael Bodziner is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and principal in our San Francisco office. Constantly researching retail’s interrelation with society, economy and human emotional response, Michael is an advocate for authentic experiences that enrich the lives of both consumers and retailers. As a convergent thinker, he incorporates lessons learned from Gensler’s hospitality, branding and entertainment practices to create holistic retail environments. Contact him at email@example.com.