Retail is an ideas business. Ultimately what we sell – particularly in this post-consumer era – is a notion, a concept, and a promise of fulfillment. And if we get it right, we turn something that shoppers don’t necessarily need into an absolute must-have. That’s the true magic of the merchant.
Wizards like Apple’s Steve Jobs and J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler mastered the art of building customer buzz around an item like bees around a hive. There’s no surer indicator of retail success than a queue, as I am often reminded by retail trend-tracker Howard Saunders of Echochamber.
But for every stroke of retail genius, there is equally a proposition that is just plain…well, dumb.
One example is a retail concept that I saw at Westfield Topanga in Los Angeles last month. Called “Cupcake Stiletto”, it’s promoted as the “world’s first shoecakery”. The founder’s “sweet idea” was to marry two irresistible items. “Why can’t a girl buy two of her favorite things – cupcakes and shoes – from one place at the same time?” asked the originator. Good question. The answer is because it’s not a very smart proposition. (Or perhaps I’m just not savvy enough to get it – ladies, rip me to shreds.)
But retail ideas don’t come much dumber than the restaurant “More Than Toilet” that I came across in Tianzifang in Shanghai. This is an eating establishment built around toilet humour, and it’s part of a (pardon the pun) chain out of Taiwan. Diners sit on toilet seats, urinals deck the walls, and the cushions are poo-shaped. A sign outside proclaims – “More Than Toilet – Delicious & Happy.” No matter what you think of McDonald’s food, I don’t think that the Golden Arches has much to worry about.
(As an aside, the toilet notion is not necessarily an absolute stinker. One of the best coffees in London right now is to be found at a café called “Attendant”, in an old underground WC. But it’s carried off with a style and panache that is sadly lacking from “More Than Toilet.”)
Great retail has at its heart a clever concept and a compelling Customer Value Proposition. Dumb retail has what its owner thinks is a smart idea but the customer doesn’t value it at all.
Perhaps the lesson here is to sense-check your brainwaves before rushing them to market. I just don’t think the world is ready for a “shoecakery” or a toilet-themed restaurant. Do you?