Retail Manifesto

Department store

Retail stores are dying out store by store. It’s that simple.

Honestly, I never really cared about both stores. But the news about store closings and a recent visit to Sears made me think: why are they failing?

Being a curious entrepreneur, with several ventures in the works, I think about failures more than I used to. Careful analysis of failures helps me understand what not to do, or even better, how to do it right. I’ve written about several brands that I really like, but they are failing – Hewlitt-Packard (HP) and Kodak.

It’s funny because back in September at a local event I said that HP will be going through re-organization in the near future. The next day Wall Street Journal reported that HP began looking for bankruptcy lawyers. Funny how it worked out. Anyways.

A Visit

On January 1st, my girlfriend and I decided to take a stroll through our local mall and just enjoy window shopping. We will be moving to a new place soon and we just wanted to see things that we might want to have in our new home. So we ended up stopping by Sears. This visit made me realize why Sears, and Kmart, are failing.


That’s really the only word that I can use to describe Sears and Kmart. A zombie has more personality than both stores combined.

When it comes to a brick and mortal store, personality includes 5 elements:

  • Visual element -Everything you see when the store is completely empty
  • Layout element – the layout of the store
  • Human element – how your staff behaves
  • Atmosphere element – smell, audio, and lighting
  • Brand element – who you are

It’s like your hand. You need 5 fingers for your hand to function properly, so does your store. Having air-tight control of each element is easy, but most places fail to have a functioning hand.

I think this really follows what Steve Jobs thought about design, and why Apple stores are so successful. He said it best about iMac:

Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together.

Let’s look at each one of them closer.

Visual Element

We are visual creatures. I listed this element first because it is VERY important. That’s why websites have pictures of products, that’s why real estate websites have pictures, and that’s why Steve Jobs cared so much about the visual aesthetics of each Apple device not only outside but inside as well. So why the hell don’t they use it to their advantage?

Every department store looks the same. Every grocery store looks the same. Every movie theater looks the same. It’s so boring…

Use the walls to your advantage, accent colors and photos are great ways to create a visual element. Personally, I think Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) stores and merchandise are overrated. Nothing special, but there’s a reason why they are so popular among teens and young adults. They have a personality with a strong visual element. They use large photos, dim lighting, with monotonous design to place focus on the clothing and the life style it offers. Their sales associates are there target market, so they can speak with their peers and drive the sales.

The visual element also includes displays and signage that the store might have. It all has to be coherent and represent your brand personality(element). Pulling stuff out of thin air just because you like it doesn’t work. Every element needs careful planning, thinking, and execution.

Layout Element

The way you layout your store, where the cashier goes, where each section goes (men’s, women’s, fruits, vegetables, etc.), is as important as the stuff you sell. But not many stores actually pay attention to the layout.

You need to tell a story with the way you lay out your store. The entrance is the beginning of the story and, possibly, the end. So think carefully how to lay out a story that goes a full circle and comes back to the beginning. It’s a device writers love to use, so why wouldn’t you use it?

Figure out what you want to tell your customers when they shop through your store, and then begin planning everything out. Remember, a good story needs a protagonist and a conflict. The protagonist is easy, that’s your customer. When it comes to conflict, you need to figure out (you most likely don’t know) what your ultimate competitive advantage is, why customers should shop at your store. Example.

Walmart’s conflict is “everyday products at an affordable price”. My previous example, A&F’s conflict is how to be cool and hip, a lifestyle conflict. Apple store’s conflict is simplicity through sophistication.

What is one key problem you are solving for your customers? That’s your conflict.

The resolution to your conflict is the reason why customers should shop at your specific store. Buying your products at the store resolves the conflict, and sets you up for an ending.

Human Element

This one is hard because you rely on other people, and that’s unpredictable. You train them, you pay them, and you implement policies to ensure high level of customer service. But all it takes one rotten apple to spoil the whole thing, and it can be as simple as a good employee having a bad day.

One of my small business clients likes to compare a good employee to Roomba vacuum, because it goes around obstacles on its own, learns, and delivers great results at the end no matter what.

That’s what you should look for when hiring employees, especially those dealing with your customers. You can’t control their behavior, but you can hire people with good behavior and outlook on life.

Just remember this when you hire people “Even if you polish a turd, it’s still a piece of shit.

So instead, get yourself something worth polishing, something that will appreciate in value as you polish it, like a diamond.

Being a sales associate, customer rep, or cashier is not a career for most people. Usually, it’s a way to earn money to make a living. Most people want to move on, so keep it in mind. Those are temporary employees in most cases, instead of wasting your valuable resources on training them and seeing them leave, spend additional resources on hiring excellent candidates that will contribute to your business.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t hire entry-level. What I’m saying is to look at their personality more than their skill set. A great personality is priceless, it is a doorway to any and all possibilities. A skill set is a doorway to a limited set of possibilities. A great personality is responsive to learning, it can be taught to be a good employee, it can be taught virtually any skill set.

Atmosphere Element

This includes all your senses, hearing, smell, touch, sight, and even taste. Controlling all senses is the key to ultimate satisfaction and spending.

Hearing – what music do you play in your store? Does it add to your overall personality or does it ruin it? If no music is played, what is the ambient sound? Minimize distracting, useless sounds (ringing when a customer walks in,  squeaky  floor, loud staff conversations, and even phone ringing.) Find an ambient sound that adds to the atmosphere and your layout story. Just like in a movie, music helps invoke emotions: fear, sadness, humor, silliness, etc. Use it wisely!

Smell – what does your store smell like? If you’re dealing with fresh food, make sure it smells like fresh food, not rotten food. If you’re dealing with cooked food, make sure it smells like it and not greasy oil. In other stores, select fragrances that (yes) add to the story you’re telling. Smelling plastic, cardboard, or worse your sales associate, does not add to your story, it ruins it – like a hammer to a screw.

Touch – how does it feel to come in contact with your store? Any open surfaces that customers come in contact with need to be vetted. Counters, fitting rooms, waiting areas, chairs, sofas, etc. Make sure you don’t just select it, but you select it because it feels right. A leather sofa feels A LOT different than a microfiber sofa, which one is right for you?

Sight – this plays off of visual element, but the addition to that element is luminosity (aka brightness). Restaurants are good at it, they have dim lights at each table to create a sense of  intimacy, make everyone look good and reduce visible flaws, so the customer can focus on the food and their company – be comfortable there. How bright or dim is your store? What about fitting rooms? There’s no innovation in fitting rooms anymore. Wouldn’t it be cool to see yourself in the situation lighting when you try on that party dress or beach attire? Press “Party” and you got yourself colorful lights with some music, try on a bikini and hit “Beach”, get some bright sunlight and an ocean breeze.

Taste – ever tasted someone’s perfumes? Well, that’s not what I’m talking about. Control this sense by offering small treats to your customers throughout the store (candies, gum, cookies, etc.). Whatever is appropriate to your atmosphere, whatever adds to the other senses. It’s a small investment that will help you stand out, be unique, and offer that small gesture of “I care about you”.

Brand Element

Even though this is the last one on the list, I came around in a circle to the beginning to finish with another strong element that you, most likely, are failing to have or create.

Brand element (personality) will help create the blueprint for your other 4 elements, it’s like your thumb. It closes the fist, yet it’s the first finger you usually think of. It’s one of those key features that separates humans from the rest of the animals, an ability to hold your coffee mug without dropping it. Woohoo.

The brand element makes your brand alive, it makes it human, it makes customers want to do business with you, it makes it memorable.

The colors you choose to represent it, the way employees behave, the way you interact with your customers, it’s all in the personality. Remember what I said earlier? Personality is priceless… It doesn’t matter if it’s a human or not, personality makes everything warm and fuzzy, something you can engage with, something you can love, something you can talk to, something you can hug, something you can trust!

Well, Sears and Kmart have none of these. They are all over the place, with no direction, no personality, no customers, and no future. After all, being dead isn’t profitable. That’s why they are failing, that’s why thousands of people are losing their jobs due to store closings, that’s why they need to wake up and smell the roses.

Now that’s my retail manifesto. It’s your right to disagree with me, but if you do, share the reason why by tweeting me.

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Viktor Nagornyy

Viktor Nagornyy

For the past 14 years, Viktor has worked with businesses of all sizes, helping them generate more leads and sales through an effective inbound marketing strategy and conversion-optimized websites while increasing marketing efficiency with marketing automation tools and tactics. Follow on Mastodon: