For Part VI of our discussion, “Putting the ‘Visual’ Back in Visual Merchandising,” we continue chatting with Michael Abata. Michael is a thought leader and cultural and consumer futurist in brand marketing and retail. He has been with Target for almost 15 years in various marketing roles. Michael is also a strategy advisor for virtual reality start-up, REM5 VR and volunteers for Twin Cities Startup Week. To see part one of our conversation, click here.
Michael sat down with Scott Heyer, Product Marketing Manager, and Chris Marti, Director of Product Marketing, of One Door to discuss how retailers are experimenting with new levels of curation, localization and what that means for the emerging relationship between big box retail and small brands.
Scott Heyer (SH): Visual merchandising plays a key role for the in-store experience along with the online shopping experience. The design of a retail store and its website can influence the customer’s journey and decision to purchase. When you look at Spotify, Apple Music, or Netflix, everything now is curated based on an algorithm of your likes and dislikes. Is there potential for more curating to help customers find brands they didn’t previously know about?
Michael Abata (MA): Yes! Geoffrey Colon, Head of the Brand Studio at Microsoft, recently posted that, “Curators are the new creators.” What that means is that with so many choices for consumers out there today, it’s going to be more and more about curation. He talks about how he gets so many people asking him what to read, what to watch, what to listen to, and what to learn. People place value on discovering the right products and his argument is that the web is just too messy. We’re back in the era of Curated Influence.
For example, if you shop Amazon for an office chair, you’ll get 10,000 office chairs served up to you. You don’t even know where to start. Because consumers are doing less shopping in physical spaces right now due to COVID, there is a need to have more curation in the digital space.
SH: In terms of curating experiences, the retailer that comes to my mind is Amazon Go. The idea of completing transactions through the app instead of a physical check-out in the store is ground-breaking. It seems like the next logical step for retail. Amazon has so much data connected to every account because they follow the shopping experience online. That changes the thought process about curating. How do retailers make omnichannel a seamless experience that brings it all together?
MA: I think Amazon is throwing stuff at the wall right now and seeing what sticks. Many Amazon Go stores are in business districts. They’re focused on refueling – breakfast, lunch and a few things you would need to grab for dinner as you’re heading home. They curate based more on demographics and location.
Another curated experience they’re playing with is their Amazon 4-Star stores. The criterion for curating assortments is products ranked 4 stars and above. But the experience is kind of a let-down because it doesn’t feel like it has that personal curation behind it. It’s just, for example, cookware pulled together in the kitchen category with 4 stars and above. However, they are trying, adapting and learning – and I applaud their curiosity and experimentation to learn.
Curating for Digital vs. Brick and Mortar
Chris Marti (CM): From a digital perspective, personalized curation is the future. If you are a retailer or brand, you would know from my online footprint that, “I’m Chris and Chris loves band t-shirts – one for every day of the week.” When I go to your website, you’re going to hit me over the head with that. And, because of cross-site tracking, you’re going to know exactly which bands I like. That’s sort of the pinnacle for digital. But for brick and mortar retail, the assortments need to be much more localized to the region as opposed to the individual consumer. Through that lens, what do you think is the biggest blocker for translating digital curation to brick and mortar?
MA: I think you’re getting at a really good point. One way of curating is based on location. That’s the easiest way. That’s saying we’ll just throw a bunch of Boston-themed merchandise in the Fenway store. If it has a Red Sox and Patriots logo on it, people in Boston will buy it. But that doesn’t feel very personalized. I think the biggest roadblock is – at what level and how deep can you get personal in the physical store, because there are so many different ways to curate?
CM: The assumption is that you’ll never be able to have a brick and mortar store with an assortment tailored to every person who walks in that door. So, logically, the place where this all meets is where the digital and physical store both become about curation, but with different needs. I think localization by region is probably the best a brick and mortar store can do because they don’t know who you are when you walk in the door.
MA: And, you have to tease that apart a little bit. Localization is a form of curation. There’s curation in terms of “what I like and what I might also like,” versus having your digital device direct you to the places or things in the store that would match it. So, the store isn’t necessarily putting it all on one shelf for you. The digital device is taking all those things and pulling it together.
The localization piece is interesting in terms of big box retail. It’s really difficult for big box to be “local” because you’ve got a centralized buying office instead of regional ones. Now think about the impact COVID is having on small, local businesses.
Big box businesses like Walmart and Home Depot are doing well. How should they be supporting small businesses now and in the future that are potentially going to need shelf space at open retail locations to survive? How do you infuse local products into a big box retail location? Logistically, a lot of things have to change.
SH: Do you think some of the larger brands are open to giving up shelf space to smaller, local brands?
MA: I think they have to be. One, because consumers expect it. I’m seeing a huge resurgence of support for Black-owned businesses. Etsy has curated together Black-owned artists. And Google just came out with an icon to search for Black-owned business on Google Maps. Brands will continue to see more consumers wanting to support small businesses. With COVID, more small companies will lose their physical location, either because they can’t afford it, or the traffic isn’t there anymore.
SH: So, a small California brand could benefit by getting shelf space at a big retailer in the California market, or you could have a small brand on the East Coast get shelf space out West. It’s about big retailers thinking of the local communities and helping fuel the economies in those markets.
MA: Right! To illustrate this moment we’re in, I love the story of Stryx (a makeup brand for men) and Byrd Hairdo Products (a men’s line). The two got together and built a little POP display for a bunch of CVS stores in California. Then, they went on TikTok and asked random TikTok users to go into CVS and check to make sure the displays were there. People were like, “There are companies that do that.” And they were like, “We’re small businesses, we can’t afford it.” In terms of shelf space, that little POP cardboard display is a good way to infuse some local without disrupting your entire merchandising plan.
SH: That’s kind of brilliant that they asked their TikTok followers to make sure their product was on display. And did people respond?
MA: Yes, people went and checked because they want to support these little companies. We’re going to see more of that type of thinking in the future.
Over the past few months for this thought leadership series, we’ve discussed the power and artistry of visual merchandising with Kristin Lauer. We learned from Anthony Perrotta what it’s like to work in the field setting stores at J.Jill and other retailers. We discussed space planning, Big Data and how to bring teams up to speed with Tracy Allen of Walgreens. And, here, Cultural and Consumer Futurist in Brand Marketing Michael Abata wrapped up a series by giving us a window into the future of curation and the customer experience. You can find all our discussions here.