Specialty retailers build stores around customer behavior

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Status has always been a driving factor for old retail: Most expensive. Most exclusive. Most visible. But new retail is going for something different: Self identify. Validation. A place where everybody knows your name.

While “big box” mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart try to create cache with celebrity brands and low prices, they are uncannily the same: Same prices. Same merchandise. Same white-washed walls with steel infrastructure ceilings. Same zoned out sales clerks.

To compete, specialty retailers are building stores around how people think and behave, around who customers think they are.

Consider Starbucks, where cognoscenti come to drink coffee at $5 a shot and be seen talking with friends, reading a book, or tapping out e-mails on their laptops. Think about the Barnes & Noble reading club, or a solitary couch in the women’s literature section.

Bulldozers today are carving out the foundations for a “lifestyle” shopping center in the Briargate Business Campus. Shops at Briargate will be Memphis-based Poag & McEwen’s $46 million development with upscale shops and restaurants ensconced in an environment lush with landscaping and outdoor sitting areas – all bathed in music from outdoor speakers. It’s a destination.

But even more than that, stores are moving from amenities and theatre to experience. What happens inside and outside the store.

“We view ourselves as enablers,” Galyan’s CEO-Chairman Robert B. Mang said. “We believe we enable people who have avocations to fulfill their passions and dreams.”

The new Galyan’s outdoor store in the First & Main Town Centre on Powers tries to hire people enthusiastic or passionate about a sport or activity. The store requires 45 hours of training in employees’ first 45 days on the job so they know their products and how to serve customers.

Mang called the company a “new breed of category killer” focused not on product categories but on consumers with active lifestyles.

In the shadow of the giant, Grand West Outfitters on North Academy Boulevard near Carefree Avenue isn’t fearful of the Galyan’s or the REI sporting goods store at Academy and Woodmen Road, much less the two Gart Sports super stores on either side of it.

Much smaller at about 10,000 square feet of sales area, Grand West Outfitters has been in business for about 20 years and also has a Denver store. General Manager Keith Baker said that while the store is value conscious, offering best quality for a good price, the store’s bedrock principle is customer service.

He said nearly all the store’s employees were customers first.

“You can buy stuff anywhere, but you can’t get the product knowledge or user interest that you can here,” Baker said. “People want that personal relationship.”

Grand West Outfitters is known for its ongoing workshops and seminars where local experts offer instruction and insights into Colorado’s outdoors life.

“People identify with the store and the people in it,” Baker said. He said small retailers’ future will be more focused on the sense of community that happens around the store.

Community is a very real trend among consumers, according to a Center for Retailing Studies research paper released earlier this year by Jay A. Scansaroli of the former Anderson Retail Industry Studies and David M. Szymanski of Texas A&M University, the center’s home.

Communities are proliferating in all aspects of life, Szymanski said: online, in the neighborhood, self-help groups, church attendance, personal-interest clubs, and volunteering are all increasing.

As the traditional nuclear family continues to break up and work, gender, and home roles morph in new directions, people as consumers “seek multiple, unique and meaningful communities to share, express and grow with fellow advocates,” he said.

Combine that with time-starved lives, rapidly changing social codes and mores, non-traditional families, and post Sept. 11 life, we’ve become a bit schizophrenic as consumers. Szymanski points out that consumers want retail to be the way we want it and the way we live, frenetic and on demand. Yet we seek solace, sanctuary and comfort in life and our stores at the same time – and often from the same place.

For retailers, identifying the soul of the customer is important, Szymanski and Scansaroli said. That leads to “creating communities of customers with shared interests and values, developing strong customer relationships and determining the types of shopping experiences consumers desire.”

For retailers, that means that customer satisfaction is just the threshold of a successful retail experience, they said. Customer respect is the cornerstone.