THE SENSITIVE SIDE OF RETAIL

Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Retailers are undergoing sensitivity training, becoming therapists as well as merchants. Challenged now by a nation of consumers who may feel shock, fear or guilt over shopping, they are adapting a kinder, gentler message to build trust and loyalty. Faceless corporations, commercialism and exploitative advertising is out. Comfortable, reliable “safe haven” shopping is in.
Over a month after the terrorist attacks, consumers are putting toes back in the waters, after an initial period of glued-to-TV seclusion and a rush on fund-raising and patriotic-themed selling. Some-store sales picked up surprisingly well by month’s end. But, while monitoring consumer moods, retailers know that the current atmosphere, with new bombshells every day, is the most unpredictable ever faced.
The terrorist attracts seriously disrupted retail advertising, canceling TV and some print ads. Special events were canceled, as money shifted to more appropriate vehicles. Most retailers donated hundreds of thousands to relief charities, in low-key, rather than exploitive fund-raising. Advertising messages were, and still are, scrutinized for words or images that are inappropriate after the attacks.
Saks Fifth Avenue pulled its “Live a Little” fall tag line, and discontinued an exclusive bracelet of the New York skyline with two diamond twin towers. Talbots canceled TV ads through October, and held soft openings rather than grand-opening celebrations for the rest of the year, concentrating on direct mail, e-mail and special programs for preferred customers. Talbots also removed the slogan “Fall Feels Fabulous” from the store campaign, leaving existing windows longer. Chico’s FAS’s tag line, “New York hasn’t gotten to me yet,” on a TV ad, was pulled.
Advertising budgets, despite the adage that marketing/advertising is the first cut in tough times, maintained, or in some cases, increased. Management and creative people had to decide to stay on message or throw away the script and start over. Whatever the decision, they have to be flexible to new events.
The catastrophe, on top of an economy spiraling into recession, has caused soul-searching, as retailers examine what they stand for and convey to their consumers. Through focus groups, they’ve learned that customers want to perceive a store as a real, human, caring entity, before they spend money there.
“Consumers will demand credibility now. They’ll ask, ‘Are they true?’ — and you can’t fake it,” said Wendy Liebmann, president, WSL, a New York retail and marketing consulting firm.
Retailers who cater to younger audiences are particularly conscious of the new credibility. Fashion trends and store loyalties change fast enough in the best of times.
“Our customer will leave so fast if we’re not true or appear fake,” said Steven Strickland, senior vice president, marketing, Wet Seal Inc., a Foothill Ranch, Calif., specialty chain. With three divisions, Wet Seal, Arden B. and Zutopia, the chain has more than 500 stores. “Young people look to brands, like ours, along with parents, teachers and celebrities, as all things that shape their lives, so we have to be true to what we are.”
The mission now, said Strickland, is to offer a store environment as a hangout and gathering place, to talk as well as shop. Traffic actually increased in the past two weeks, said Strickland. Based on pre-Sept. 11 high-single-digit comp-store sales increases, Wet Seal increased print ads for November.
“The mall is still the meeting ground, a controlled environment, where kids can talk, as they may not be talking in school,” he said. “We have to make the store, and mall owners have to make the mall, a safe haven for people.” Wet Seal carefully selects music on the best sound systems, and airs MTV and videos on occasion.
Strickland thinks fashion for younger customers will not change much. Celebrities and role models will continue to influence modes of dress and personal style, but there may be more interest in individual expression. Focus groups indicated that young people may become more interested in causes of freedom, rights and world peace more than ever.
Shopping as therapy and a feel-good store environment have always been a hallmark for Chico’s, a Fort Meyers, Fla.-based specialty chain with around 280 stores. The approach should serve well in these times, said Jim Frain, vice president, marketing.
“We’re treating people more than ever as friends,” said Frain, adding that Chico’s customer base is often known to sales associates by name. “Our stores brought in refreshments and asked people to just sit down and talk if they needed it. We’ve always presented it as going to a friend’s house, a place where people feel better.”
After Sept. 11, comp-store sales dropped 20 percent the first week and 11 percent the second week. A turnaround the third week saw comp stores up 6 percent. The fourth week showed gains of more than 20 percent. New York and Washington stores came back first, while stores near vacations spots, such as Las Vegas and areas dependent on air travel, were slower to recover. September ended up with a 1.4 percent total increase in comp sales. Chico’s will continue its planned openings of 60 stores.
Though staying the course with planned advertising budgets, Chico’s held some money back in case of future disasters. Themes, which have always presented comforting, secure, relaxed images, will continue.
Relaxed, family, community-oriented messages also have always been the theme for Talbots. And this holiday will be no exception.
“We’re known for our link with the customer and communication,” said a spokeswoman. “We try to be a refuge and emphasize comfort, personal relationships and loyalty.” In the past month, feel-good comfort clothes, such as sweaters and casual pants, have been Talbots’s bestsellers.
Faith Popcorn, president, Faith Popcorn’s Brainreserve Trendbank, said that, in an uncertain world, consumers will rediscover social consciousness, reach back to spiritual roots and crave recognition for their individuality. They want to be heard, by retailers who are willing to listen to their needs.
With that in mind, Popcorn has been hired to reposition Goody’s, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based moderate-to-better specialty chain with 320 stores. Although the reimaging began before Sept. 11, Popcorn said efforts resonate with the current consumer mood.
With the slogan “All About You,” Goody’s is focusing on the consumer. Chairman and chief executive officer Robert Goodfriend set out on a bus for a “listening” tour in stores in five cities. Commercials feature him talking to consumers in cinema-verite style. “Trend Friends” in each market implement consumer suggestions, such as more aisle space, more large-size clothing, etc.
In five test markets, sales increased in double digits since the summer bus tours began, and have held in double digits after Sept. 11. The tour will roll out to 90 stores in eight markets by next year. Popcorn said the approach resonates now more than ever, with consumers’ somber, uncertain moods.
“We have to show that we are people first, responding as ethical people in an ethical company,” said Popcorn. “It’s real, and today, it’s the only way to sell product.”