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  • birgitkibbel


Let’s face it – success in retail isn’t easy. You need a compelling brand, desirable merchandise, effective pricing, great real estate, well-trained, reliable staff, and impactful advertising. Easy, right?


As someone whose career has been almost entirely dedicated to helping make great retail, I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad, and the... well, you know. Sometimes, it’s a store that’s so full of loud promotions and bad signage that it’s an affront to the senses. But I’ve also seen ‘shrines to décor & architecture’ where the space is so driven by an aesthetic that it seems like everyone forgot the goal was to sell stuff.


That’s why you should think about a physical store as a Selling Machine, where all facets need to be designed to work in harmony to create an experience that finds the right balance between utility and commerce; a place that is both enjoyable to shop AND drives the necessary impressions and behaviours to maximize its selling potential.


Working with McDonald’s Canada some years ago, I was impressed by their best-in-class formula for designing restaurants as ‘ultimate selling machines.’ Every one of their 1,400+ locations is meticulously planned to deliver an enjoyable experience (relative to the category) that effectively promotes current offers and traditional favourites. And each touchpoint consistently delivers the RIGHT communication at the RIGHT moment on the customer journey. Now, that’s a great selling machine.


Sometimes it can be small gestures that can make big strides towards optimizing sales. One of my favourite, brutally simple examples is something I’ve observed at IKEA. On the approach to the store from the parking lot, a sign prominently announces their generous return policy. By LEADING the shopping experience with its return policy, IKEA sends a message to customers that relaxes buyer anxiety and encourages what we call ‘purchase to try,’ thus encouraging a bigger basket. Brilliant.


So how do best-in-class retailers like McDonald’s and IKEA create Ultimate Selling Machines? Here are three thoughts to consider:


1. Define the Customer Journey (Hint: There’s more than one!)

In building a finely tuned selling machine, every element of your customer journey, from approach to exit, needs to be carefully considered and managed to influence the customer in the most effective manner. And all of the machine’s parts – the décor, merchandise, communications and staff – need to work in unison to deliver the right experience, at the right time, in the right way.


By defining your customer journey, you will identify:

  • What customers are doing at each moment on the customer journey

  • What you can do to make their experience more enjoyable while driving brand and commercial objectives


From there, the real magic happens. The results of your assessment allow you to position the many variables of influence – product education, brand ESG values, guarantees, promotion, etc. – against each moment on the customer journey. I like to think about the process as solving a Rubik’s Cube, where each colour needs to line up on the right side to complete the puzzle.

But there’s a secret truth here that most retailers forget – namely, that virtually every retailer has more than one target customer, and not every target customer has/wants the same journey in the store. But the store can’t be all things to all people, so the make or break here is to evaluate the journey from EACH target segment’s perspective, THEN assess/debate whose needs get priority at every particular moment.


2. Get Marketing to sit at the Store Design Table

Ironically, the root cause of underperformance is often a function of untapped synergies between departments within a retail organization, and in particular, a lack of coordination between store design and marketing. In other words, your store’s look & feel vs. what you say through promotions and messaging. I’ve also noticed a tendency for many retailers to take marketing programs that were developed specifically for external broadcasting and simply plug them into the store. Great message. Wrong moment.


Getting marketing involved at the early stages of store concept design ensures that the physical / permanent elements of the store offer the best ‘canvas’ for marketing to do its thing in the store – from exterior image and communications all the way through to the exit experience.  In my experience, things like multiple t-stands, acrylic, laser-printed signs on checkouts and shelf strip signs that don’t fit are dead giveaways that marketing was on the outside looking in when the store was designed.  


3. One size does NOT fit all

Getting the functional and emotional balance of your store right for your Ideal Concept store is your primary task, but it takes time and investment to develop a solution that is scalable against an entire chain of stores. Each location must be assessed, and a unique kit-of-parts developed. It’s the boring, grunt-work of effective retail, but without it, your entire program eventually falls apart. 


The investment in developing the strategy, plan and infrastructure for the ultimate selling machine is a best-in-class practice which is becoming ever more critical. As challenges for traditional bricks and mortar stores continue to mount, you’ll see that it’s an effort that continues to separate the market winners from those who wonder why they aren’t succeeding at making great retail.

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