What We Can Learn from the Top Retail Brands

By: John Kinsella

From: IGC Retailer, November/December, 2012

What We Can Learn from the Top Retail Brands
To remain competitive, you must continually innovate your product and service offerings. Garden centers with the most engaging and differentiated customer experience see the greatest sales in today’s marketplace. Let’s identify some best practices and the lessons we can learn from innovators in other retail industries.

Apple Builds Loyalty Via Training
Apple’s vision isn’t to sell electronics - it’s to “enrich lives.” At the Apple Store’s Genius Bar, associates troubleshoot and train customers while rebuilding customer relationships that may be strained from a shattered iPhone screen.

Apple’s One to One program, available exclusively to those purchasing a new computer, gives customers the opportunity to sign up for unlimited access to personalized training of Apple products - from basic operational training to advanced techniques such as video editing and web design - for $99 a year. The training takes place in the stores, and often results in add-on sales. Consider the wealth of knowledge you could share about gardening that would be valued by your customers, both novice and expert. By creating ongoing training relationships with your customers, you’ll build loyalty.

Pet Valu Upgrades Its Environment
Pet Valu, a small-box chain selling pet food and accessories in the Mid-Atlantic region and Canada, has differentiated its shopping experience through high-end store design, a well-trained staff and a carefully edited assortment of best-of-brand pet products.

Compared to this industry’s big box competition, Pet Valu’s smaller format stores feature welcoming interiors with hardwood floors, track lighting, boutique merchandising and a more select assortment of higher-end, higher-margin products that promote pet wellness. Samples of pet foods are available so pet owners can try before they buy.

Pet Valu stores also engage customers in local markets by partnering with animal welfare organizations.

While the competition may offer lower prices, Pet Valu wins by offering an inspiring and differentiated destination with top-notch service - something every garden center should strive to do.

Dick’s Serves Local Needs
Dick’s Sporting Goods stores succeed as leaders in hundreds of local markets by catering to regional sports calendars so that the offering is aligned with its customers’ seasonal needs. It also employs certified fitness trainers, bicycle mechanics, golf pros and athletic experts who impart knowledge, value and integrity to their customers.

Dick’s further extends its local affiliation through its Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education program, which raises awareness of concussion testing for high school athletes, one of Dick’s core customer groups.

Similarly, IGC retailers can differentiate themselves by fine-tuning their product assortment to meet the local climate zone and sourcing from local growers.

Gap Goes Back to Basics
In 2010, Gap relaunched its original line of jeans from 1969 in an effort to tell the story of its roots and to give the brand an authentically iconic niche. Customers responded to Gap’s offering of inexpensive, on-trend, high-quality clothing that felt a bit edgy and gritty but still remained accessible and attractive to mainstream shoppers. This relaunch provided Gap with a fresh opportunity to tell its story to a new audience while reinforcing the themes that originally built the brand: differentiated fashion, quality and value.

Many IGCs have a storied heritage in their community, but the core vision and values may have become unfocused over time. Consider reaching back to identify the core strengths of your company, and refocus on delivering well on the basics and demonstrating what your brand stands for and what makes it a standout choice for their garden needs.

Chipotle Perfects the Burrito
Chipotle does one thing and does it better than its competitors: burritos. The menu and offering at Chipotle are focused on built-to-order burritos using fresh organic ingredients, sourced locally whenever possible. Chipotle has attracted a huge following of young professionals, students, families and health-conscious individuals who love its well-priced healthy fare. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, Chipotle consistently serves a limited menu extremely well.

To better cater to its loyal customer base, Chipotle created a free iPhone app that allows customers to preorder food and avoid waiting in line during peak hours. The app rose to the top 20 apps on iTunes with more than a million downloads.

You can also win by focusing on your core strengths, honing assortments, consistently meeting customer expectations and giving customers online tools to access gardening information and share their successes.

Target’s In-Store Boutiques
The Shops at Target, the  retailer’s store-within-a-store program, showcases a limited run, co-branded assortment from smaller, exclusive merchants. Brands like Polkadog Bakery in Massachusetts, Privet House in Connecticut and The Candy Store in San Francisco collaborate with Target to provide a limited line of affordable, innovative offerings. Target customers are trained to buy limited-release items when they see them in stores - because they’re only available for six weeks or until supplies last.

How about launching limited-release plants and merchandise that are fine-tuned to the season, coordinated with a marketing campaign emphasizing why the assortment is special and won’t last?

Nordstrom Defines High Service
Rather than pull back during hard economic times, Nordstrom has expanded its services and offerings to include in-store wedding boutiques, with an assortment that ranges from guest books to wedding gowns. It has also expanded its complimentary personal shopper program.

Taking a cue from Apple stores, Nordstrom associates can ring up customers using mobile handheld devices on the sales floor, saving customers from lining up at registers. Online, it offers free shipping and returns.

What service protocols can you put in place to be a leader in your market without resorting to price promotions?

Williams-Sonoma Expands Offering
San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma recently launched its Agrarian line. This brand extension targets the retailer’s high-end cooking and entertaining customer base with a curated collection of products that focus on healthy living and a sustainable, farm-to-table approach to food. By embracing this lifestyle niche, Williams-Sonoma extends its brand to a new set of customers while remaining true to its core values.
Build on your core gardening assortment by extending your product lines into other areas that are appealing and interesting to your existing customers.

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