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The Art & Science of Shopping: Beyond the Flagship

Visual Merchandising provides an impactful yet economic means of transforming space. Image © Gensler

This week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired an interview with Kathleen Jordan on Lateline, a national news program. The piece explores how department stores are learning to cope with a world in which customers increasingly prefer to buy online rather than in store. As one of two retail authorities interviewed for the piece, Kathleen postulated that retailers will need to innovate to survive, saying, “Retailers aren’t necessarily adventurous …nobody wants to be the first one out of the gate.” Watch the full interview here.

There’s nothing like a little domestic travel to make one appreciate staying home. Couple that with being a devout shopper, and there is no place like home for shopping.

You tend to lose perspective when your local Macy’s is the Herald Square Flagship. Undergoing extensive renovations, the flagship is now tricked out with a new 6th floor restaurant, Stella 34, the world’s largest shoe floor with its own champagne bar and new multi-level Louis Vuitton and Gucci shop in shops. But what’s happening with the rest of the fleet? In Macy’s case, there are another 800 stores out there serving secondary and suburban markets that don’t resemble the flagship in the slightest. So the question that comes to mind is this: At what point does the flagship become off-brand?

The flagship obviously becomes much more that the typical store. Usually located in a major city that is a tourist destination, it represents the opportunity to capture market share with customers who wouldn’t typically have the brand on their radar. But in the course of amping up the flagship on the retail version of steroids—technology, enhanced customer service, non-traditional retail experiences—does the brand get lost among the bells and whistles? Or worse, if the flagship represents the best the brand has to offer, what does that make the stores of the fleet out in the secondary markets? Not to pick on Macy’s, but they are the biggest U.S. player at this point, and as such they provide the perfect test case. Looking at their stores from Garden State Plaza (this Jersey Girl’s mall of choice) to Seattle, I applaud their efforts to elevate certain aspects of the store fleetwide—the hospitality-inspired Fitting Room experience and the introduction of proprietary branded departments such as the MSTYLELAB juniors department and the IMPULSE contemporary department, to name a few. This has provided some level of consistency from the shoppers’ perspective relative to product offering.

Mobile apps and in-store technology can provide connections back to the Mother Flagship. At Macy’s, for example, stores in secondary markets are able to participate in promotional events such as the Brazilian themed 2012 Flower Show at the Herald Square store. Image © Gensler

But what about consistency of the guest experience? Where’s the champagne bar for Macy’s shoe shoppers in Miami? I’d bet these ladies would appreciate an afternoon refreshment. And where’s the store navigation app for the shopper in Kansas? Those Overland Park customers are pressed for time, too, and would love to be guided to the object of their shopping mission swiftly and efficiently. My point is this: If the flagship experience becomes so heightened, how can the retailer rationalize the extreme differential in the comparative shopping environments? Moreover, what kind of message does it send to customers in these outer markets? The chasm between the two realities of flagship and secondary markets, if too deep, can cause brand confusion.

Retailers need to figure out a way to share the flagship experience with the balance of the fleet. This is where technology can come in. Macy’s has long held some amazing annual events at the Herald Square Flagship: the Flower Show (which runs in five cities), the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the 4th of July Fireworks. They also hold special in-store events for launches ranging from having a historian on Levi’s to talk about the brand to Justin Bieber promoting his latest fragrance. They even had the darling of the fashion world, Karl Lagerfeld, to launch their IMPULSE collaboration. These special events happen in a targeted handful of the fleet, but how can these experiences be shared with the greater audience? Perhaps the website can assist, making products that are exclusive to these primary markets available to the secondary markets. Or utilize technology to provide real-time in-store live streaming of events at the flagship, making these virtual fleetwide events. All stores should be app-enabled to provide a convenience to the customer, giving them the ability to map their time there, but also to alert them of these special events that they too can participate in, and the products they may not find in store but can purchase on the website (or order in the store and have delivered to their home). Smart retailers realize that they must stitch the complete brand experience together, that the new omni-channel nature of retail is forcing them to address consistency across all touch points. Smarter retailers will understand the importance of consistency across the physical environments and customer experience, and while there will always be a hierarchy of A, B, and C type stores, its best to prevent the development of an A, Y, and Z reality.

Enhancements continue to reveal themselves as the Macy’s Herald Square Flagship undergoes extensive renovations. Image © Gensler

Kathleen Jordan
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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