The outlook on retail at this moment feels adrift, but make no mistake this feeling is about to pass and welcome a new sense of clarity and camaraderie to the various segments of an industry that have long sought new direction before a virus came along.
Unconventional Retail is what we're calling new selling opportunities in unsuspecting spaces, collaboration between entrepreneurs who do completely opposite things, and re-designing all our selling interactions in ways we never would have thought to consider before this new hygienic era.
Anywhere we experience a product in some capacity is a selling opportunity and every business is trying to rapidly take on these selling challenges despite widespread lack of experience. All we know is that we're still here, we all need our businesses to survive, and we're so much stronger when working together.
My team at Cubic is working with brands on common problems like less foot traffic in conventional stores and expanding the thinking to what's next and what are the attainable steps in updating the selling strategies? But we're also taking on far more amorphous problems with the future at large for retail and it's exciting to say the least.
To do this we like to think about all the interaction points available in life, and analyze the complete persona of customers who like to buy certain types of product. Turns out that patterns and interests are predictably aligned and retailers offering someone multiple things that they like at one time is good strategy. Nothing new here but this goes beyond cross merchandising displays; This is offering services and businesses that at one time were very much unrelated fields a way to act together and thrive even in hard times.
Small retailers with single stores are really hurting under the lock-down pressures and feel it's time to do-or-die. It would be horrible to see the biggest of the brands gobble up some of these creative independents, like a savage mother bear eating her cubs for the good of the species. We would rather see the honesty in acknowledging "Right now this town ain't big enough for the both of us," and then also ask "What can we forge together to be stronger and both survive?"
Hybridization of businesses is a great way to trudge forward with new energy. Think about it more simply as creating winning combos. Many partnerships have been done ie; A pizza shop + a craft brewery, Craft Coffee + local bread shops...But it's gotten far deeper into looking at the personas of what type of people enjoy similar things. Such as a great Bicycle shop + an amazing craft coffee bar who also sells the vegan pasteries from the bakery down the block and offers new ordering services/no contact bike repair drop offs & same day returns. That's not too far of a stretch and all three unique businesses benefit from this type of hybridization of sales by selling in the same environment of their similar customer archetype. Furthermore, their customer didn't have to put on a facemask three separate times and grow frustrated with the new normal and likely skip one stop altogether because of it. Let's solve that.
"The reality is that today three separate entrepreneurs with rent and payrolls are struggling alone, but together they may thrive and grow more than ever."
Soon we'll look back on these retailing adjustments and think "It's so obvious this doesn't even feel new". But the reality is that today three separate entrepreneurs with rent and payrolls are struggling to make ends meet alone, but together they may thrive and grow more than ever. Put up the flairs within your community and start making new connections now, and don't be afraid to let the world know you're looking for help or partnership.
Just look to existing examples like the trendy converted warehouse spaces with 20 small pop-up versions of traditional stores/online businesses now rebranded as some combined indoor "Market" with an aptly gentrified name like "The Loop on 2nd". Roll your eyes all you want, but it's working for those retailers because overhead is far lower and the traffic flow is steadier for an independent maker. The customers discover things they never would have seen without these collaborations.
For other sections of retail we're seeing spas + restaurants + retailers being cross promoted at Hotel settings and Gyms not just in a traditionally dedicated space like the old slat-walled gift shop with a bucket of polished rocks your kids would rather die than not dig their hands into.
Forget that old gift-shop. You're a sophisticated urbanite looking to be delighted and not even realize you were being sold to.
Rather think about how to take signature items from your overall hospitality brand and re-merchandise them as lifestyle items throughout the property in different new displays that make sense where people will be hanging out or engaged. The goal is that an interested guest discovers items more organically and can order it themselves or request any staff to "Please fetch one of those for us, our room number or membership ID is 123, Thanks Jenkins". Passive style retailing is going to grow even more now that in-person interactions are a bit shunned for the time being. Which brings us to the point of developing exciting new services...
Service and Hospitality go together like, well service and hospitality. Who doesn't want honest service to make your experience effortlessly enjoyable and more thoughtful now than ever.
This era will demand exceptional thinking into the service side of the selling interactions in order to get product experiences into the hands of buyers. No customer wants to think "Was this product handled improperly? Does it need to be disinfected?" "Do I have to carry this around wondering if I need to wash my hands all day?" It's expected that you as the brand steward and superhero that you are, thought of this and have some solutions.
New services in selling interactions are absolutely not meant to manifest as overly eager staffers walking the sales-floor to engage customers. Right now it's all about self sufficiency, passive selling, and unfortunately incorporating distancing into the customer journey. It's again knowing and predicting your customers' persona and being two steps ahead of what else they're going to be interested in and have it already there like a trail of breadcrumbs.
To paint the picture further, it's building on the concepts we already we're experimenting with. It's going to be a high-end mens store whom knows their customers are also interested in interior design/architecture/DIY projects right now and would be smart to sell or cross-promote at local home tour events and the like because these men aren't shopping at the traditional retail spaces right now. It's offering to send items to your home like Warby Parke's multiple pairs of glasses to try on before you buy. It's a major athleisure brand knowing their customers are craving to book a getaway now that we've been cooped up at home and how can they collaborate with an anemic hotel chain and an army of out of work yoga instructors to make some serious business happen for everyone. Heck, toss in a recycled ocean plastic youtuber to lead a zoom craft session during the trip and provide all the needed materials for the connected activity after you collect plastic off the beach and feel good about it. (Hint: It's just garbage, but are we not entertained by the thought of it driving the sales of yoga pants and shoes too?)
Examples abound in great cross business retailing but none made me more excited last year than Restoration Hardware's rooftop cafe's which gave me - a person without the sort of income that would allow the purchase of any item in their offerings - an opportunity to be apart of their luxury world for the duration of an order of truffle fries and sparkling water as I sat amongst the incredible furniture and tablewares. However a month later my parents and I subsequently met for a happy hour at the same cafe' and they were inspired to make a "Small" purchase they wouldn't normally have made without a reason to go in there. It works, damn-it; And we all want to be delighted with these experiences where we wouldn't even imagine that a furniture store would be a location to catch up with family and feel welcomed like rich folks for an hour. ...The breadcrumbs they laid down worked and here I am still promoting the brand thanks to the positive memory.
We're all experiencing the same new retail problems and slumping sales numbers are weighing on our spirits for achieving growth and desperate to feel secure again. Design and creative thinking can help solve all of this with unconventional retail solutions that are out there waiting amongst our colleagues whom are all in the same boat, adrift but ready to chart a new course together. There's some brave captain's also out there already working hard to right the ship and adapt to the times better than we ever have.
We're excited to see what's next and our experts are ready to help you write your success story as well. Give us a call, we look forward to hearing from you!
*If you enjoyed this article, please reach out to us at to talk directly with our team. - We read and respond to all inquiries directly and are looking forward to setting up time to discuss strategies for what's next with your brand.
Creative Lead, CUBIC USA
Keg & Case Market, West 7th Street, St. Paul. Minnesota