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Curation at Scale: Is It Possible?

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In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Elizabeth Shobert, explores curation in retail. Elizabeth is Director of Marketing & Digital Strategy at StyleSage – an intelligence business, founded on the idea and mission that we can all do better, and that technology has the power to enable smarter decision-making.

This year’s story of unlikely retail bedfellows recently revealed its latest chapter with the announcement that Macy’s had acquired experiential retailer Story. For those of you not acclimated with Story, it’s a retail concept based on themes and experiences that rotate throughout the year. Whether the Story is “Love,” “Disrupt,” or “Beauty,” they curate and connect the theme via products, workshops, and other types of experiential events. And despite only one physical location, it’s become something of an aspirational beacon for retailers around the world. That’s because a visit to Story is like a trip to a new destination – full of surprises and new things to learn and experience firsthand.

But going back to the acquisition story line, the bigger play for Macy’s here is arguably that they brought in Story’s founder, Rachel Schechtman, as its Brand Experience Officer. Undoubtedly more than a PR move, the acquisition speaks to Macy’s desire to bring a similar “can’t miss, can’t forget” feeling to their stores. With this move, our curiosity is certainly piqued, but the question at the top of everyone’s mind is whether or not this concept is scalable. When you’re an organization that is meant to appeal to and reach the masses, can you re-create this feeling inside each and every store? Let’s dig into this idea of curation at scale – what does it mean, who’s done it successfully, and how can you execute it to a T?

It Gives Me The Warm + Fuzzies, Yet It Isn’t Just a Feeling

Let’s consider curation in two layers – the first is in the sense of a museum – a curator selects objects that specifically tell a story and groups them around the given theme they wish to communicate. In many instances, these are objects that are unique, unusual, and perhaps not typically found in coexistence. The second layer of curation often calls to mind a kind of sparseness – an economy of choice if you will – as you can only choose a few items so each must contribute something meaningful to the overall experience. Put together, there’s a story that may not be overtly spelled out for you, but you are able to imagine and piece together that which is trying to be conveyed.

How do we experience curation as consumers? It comes through in a multitude of mediums or touchpoints. First, there’s the product itself – the look and style of them, the number of choices, and prices. Then, of course, there’s the environment in which these products are sold – the fixtures, the dress of the sales staff, and the store layout – to name a few. Put these two merchandising components together, and you as the consumer have an impression of what you’re seeing and experiencing, but importantly, it’s an impression that is also informed by your own personal point-of-view.

The URBN brands are good examples of the first layer of curation we discussed. Its Anthropologie stores are certainly not short on product, yet as a consumer you feel like a well-traveled (and shopped) person has hand-picked items that remind him or her of a particular time and place. Their Urban Outfitters stores also do that – you sense that the items for sale – whether apparel, home, or lifestyle – were picked by someone who is always going to be well ahead of you on the trend curve.

But let’s take the second layer of curation – that aforementioned economy of choice – and think about how that also manifests itself in retail. If you think about thriving DTC disruptors like Everlane, Away, or Glossier, they aren’t about offering up a ton of product. Instead, these brands are about products that are carefully selected to fit the ethos of the brand and the needs of its target consumers – to ultimately give them “fewer, yet better” choices.

So you see, curation at retail takes different shapes, but the end result is similar. It feels familiar – like “me” – yet simultaneously aspirational, when done properly. Everything that is present has a purpose. And yet this is a deceptively simple concept that, in practice, evades many a retailer in search of higher revenues. So let’s talk more about why curation is oftentimes lacking in today’s retail experiences.

It Requires Clarity + Guts

When it comes to curation, we’d argue that there are two critical elements to its successful execution. First, there obviously has to exist a target market for your product and experience. Perhaps that’s a target market that hasn’t been clearly articulated or grouped together before, but it needs to exist and you need to come at it from an angle that others haven’t yet taken. How do you do this? You can assess this via customer research, market sizing, analysis of adjacent market players and customer alternatives, and testing, testing, testing. (Shameless plug for analytics right there.) And before you dismiss this advice as basic – consider today’s retail landscape which is littered with far too many imitators and far too few innovators – as clearly evidenced by sustained widespread discounting. Many of us aren’t being very original, and the writing is on the wall.

Second, as you identify market segments and build out your product or service offering, your curation strategy needs to be underpinned by a clear brand purpose and voice and – here’s the important part – each part of your organization needs to have that as its cornerstone. It’s not just about those parts of the organization that directly touch the consumer; each part of the organization plays a role in facilitating the desired end experience, or else pieces of that experience can be diminished along the way. The right product, supported by value-adding technology and excellent customer service, are all vital aspects of building a great brand experience.

This is simple, right? Not so fast. Operationalizing these things requires guts. Sure, you can add products and go into markets that present an opportunity – but do they make sense? And do they truly fit with your overall brand vision and mission?   We’d argue that sometimes the choice to not pursue a certain product or market segment, is the difficult but right choice for your brand. What you must ask yourself (and the customer) is, “Does this help us address unmet customer needs and desires? And can we do it better than anyone else?” Yes, we’re all too aware of the market pressures your business faces, but look around us, at where we are in retail right now. It’s exactly like your mom used to say, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Your People Are The Key To Successful Curation

Local market strategy sounds like it belongs inside the hallowed halls of the C-Suite, and unfortunately it often doesn’t get much further than that. Another aspect of a successful curation strategy? Realizing one size (and assortment) doesn’t fit all markets. Fortunately, we are living in the golden age of personalization – where marketers can choose who sees what – by mining data on consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and demographic profiles. At StyleSage, we’ve had the opportunity to take this one step further, and collaborate with retailers who have realized that in the digital realm, your local product and pricing strategy is key to connecting with consumers. Correctly identifying the right local competitive benchmarks and selecting products that uniquely fit to that market are critical components of your local go-to-market (and curation) strategy.

But there’s one important – and human – element that should be considered in curation. At the end of the day, who interfaces with your customer most frequently? It’s the person working on the shop floor who knows which products are being requested, what the common barriers to purchase are, and where there might be gaps in your offering. As Zara has proven over the long haul, empowering local level managers to manage store inventory can have a major positive effect on the bottom line – and we’ve been greatly encouraged to hear that retailers, including Macy’s, are picking up on this previously under-considered, yet crucial aspect to successful local market strategy.

The only other question is – are you hiring the right people who can execute your brand vision at scale? Curation is only a concept without the people who can execute it from start-to-finish.

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Lydia Hanson Lydia Hanson has been part of the WhichPLM team for over four years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.