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C.O. Bigelow’s Ian Ginsberg on Non-Digital Engagement

The 175-year-old apothecary's president brought the crowd back to the physical world with a presentation centered on the in-store experience.

During a program filled with talk of all things digital, Ian Ginsberg, president of C.O. Bigelow, brought the crowd back to the physical world with a presentation centered on the in-store experience. “There was a time many years ago when people shopped in stores,” began Ginsberg. “They did it not because it was convenient, but because they wanted to. They did it because it made them feel good.”

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

For Ginsberg, it is precisely this feel-good factor that keeps consumers coming to his 175-year-old apothecary, which houses an eclectic mix of classic, luxury and indie beauty and personal care offerings from across the globe. “Shopping is an opportunity to lose oneself, fantasize, touch, feel, try on, test-drive, dream, and you can’t do that online,” he said. “Is she sitting at the computer smelling the lavender from Provence? Is she touching that luxurious body cream from Tuscany? Is she trying on that hair accessory and able to ask your opinion? Is Warby Parker enough?”

Ginsberg said that while the convenience of online shopping is certainly a draw, consumers still crave something intangible, something they can get only through personal interchange. “The DVD didn’t kill movie theaters and the Internet is not going to kill retail, but we can kill retail,” he warned.

Ginsberg punctuated his point by sharing some of his grievances with the experience at other retail locations. Among them: uninterested sales people, faceless transactions, too many questions at checkout and “scripted, faux-caring insincere greetings,” like, “What can I help you discover today?”

“I don’t even know how to answer that question,” he quipped.

For Ginsberg, honesty and interaction are at the crux of his business model. Employees — who are trained on emotional components of the stock — are told to focus less on sell-through, and more on engagement. “Instead of jumping into product, how about a little skin-care 101?” said Ginsberg. “I don’t care how many [online] videos [customers] watch, sometimes they need validation from a sales associate.”

In addition to helping validate a purchase, employees at C.O. Bigelow, which also serves as a pharmacy, are instructed to keep interaction personal and upbeat. “Ask [the consumer] about her routine,” he said. “Talk to her like a friend. Put some blush on her. Have her try a new lip gloss. Give her a hand massage. Touch her in a way that makes her feel better about herself. Make her want to come back.”

Ginsberg said staff members are encouraged to follow up with customers, including those coming in for medicinal items. “We’ll call the mom three days after we give the antibiotics [for her child] to see how the kid’s doing,” he said. “The doctor doesn’t do it and the Internet doesn’t do it and the mom loves it.”

Ginsberg said another focus is constantly refreshing the in-store layout, much like a retailer would on a homepage, for a renewed feeling of discovery. “The shopper wants to feel the thrill of conquering the world when they leave with something they didn’t necessarily need and they can’t wait to get home to use it,” he said. While Ginsberg admitted the digital world is far from shrinking, he concluded with the reminder that brick-and-mortar retailers have a unique opportunity to touch consumers far beyond the touch screen.

“We find it our job to educate and supplement what [consumers have] learned online,” said Ginsberg. “They’ve been on the Web site. They’ve read the reviews. They know everything — but they really don’t. They’re coming to you for help, otherwise they’d stay home.”