Steve Dennis

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on retail has been devastating so far, but similar to other business disruptions of the past century — from two global wars and the Great Depression to 9/11 and the Great Recession — the industry will survive. And for some retail brands, they will emerge stronger and more relevant to the demands of consumers.

In his just-released book, “Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Digital Disruption,” retail industry veteran, author and keynote speaker Steve Dennis presents case studies and insights into what makes successful retailers thrive. Published by LifeTree Media, the book is available on Amazon.

Here, Dennis discusses the book, the current COVID-19 outbreak and how physical retail will evolve.

WWD: In your experience as a former retail executive, what are the key attributes that make a fashion/luxury brand a winner?

Steve Dennis: As I talk about in the book, “people buy the story before they buy the product.” For fashion and luxury brands, it’s often a story about how their products make the customer feel and how it reinforces how they wish to be seen by people that matter to them. All brands have to get product functionality and the basics of the customer experience right to stay in the game.

More and more, what separates the winners from the losers is creating a truly memorable experience that resonates emotionally and that the customer is compelled to share with others — that is quite literally remarkable.

WWD: You have written and spoke at great length on “harmonized retail” – why is this theme critical for fashion brands?

S.D.: “Harmonized Retail” is my term for what many call “omnichannel” — and is Essential number three in my “8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail” framework. I believe that the distinction between online and physical retail channels is increasingly a false one. Retailers need to drop their channel-centric thinking and metrics, break down their organizational silos and embrace the blur that is shopping today.

The customer is the channel. It’s not about being everywhere, it’s about showing up in remarkable ways in the moments that matter, wherever and whenever the customer chooses to engage with a brand. Harmonized retail focuses on eliminating the discordant notes in the shopping journey and “amplifying the wow” in highly customer-relevant and unique ways.

steve dennis

WWD: What is the future of physical retail for fashion, given the continued rise of e-commerce?

S.D.: Physical stores will continue to be important, though their role is evolving quickly. We need to recognize the unique capabilities of stores in delivering on a brand’s promise, while at the time understanding that digital drives brick-and-mortar; and vice versa. For most fashion and luxury retailers, it’s useful to think about physical stores as the heart of the brand’s ecosystem.

They can be critically important assets when their role in the customer journey is well understood and when they adapt to better win, keep and grow customer relationships, regardless of whether the ultimate transaction is consummated online or in a store.

WWD: As Giorgio Armani recently wrote in his open letter to WWD, the industry is in the middle of a stress test for fashion and luxury retail with the COVID-19 crisis. In light of this, what are the top three things that fashion retailers need to focus on to successfully navigate an increasingly turbulent environment?

S.D.: While we are in unprecedented times at the moment, it’s been the case that all of retail has been experiencing seismic shifts and the pace of disruption will only continue to accelerate. To paraphrase what I say in the book, the waves are going to keep coming. We’re going to have to learn to surf.

So, the first thing is to stay agile and build flexibility into operating models. The second is to prioritize relationships over transactions. We should never underestimate how important trust is in building brand equity. Third, establish and build a culture of experimentation. As this crisis has reinforced, the future is increasingly volatile and uncertain. We must make testing and learning an inherent part of our business model.

WWD: We hear a lot about radical experimentation in retail — how can fashion and luxury retailers adopt this strategy while still maintaining their brand identity?

S.D.: Most retailers that find themselves in trouble today got that way because they watched the last 20 years happen to them and were afraid to take risks. “Radical” is the last Essential in my framework and retailers that fail to accept it are almost certainly doomed to failure. But adopting a culture of experimentation is not a free for all. Innovation is a discipline that has a process and operates within a set of parameters. We must accept that unwillingness to radically innovate is the most-risky thing we can do and that, as my friend Seth Godin says, “if failure is not an option, than neither is success.”

WWD: Can you give us some insights on what to expect in your upcoming book “Remarkable Retail”?

S.D.: The book is divided into two parts. The first — entitled “Shift Happens” — unpacks and dissects the state of retail today, where it’s headed and what is most important to focus on if we wish to remain intensely customer relevant and profitable. The second part I call “The Journey to Remarkable.” I explain the “8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail,” how to best apply the principles to a company’s unique situation and how to get started and stay on the path.

I try to strike a balance between provocative and pragmatic.

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