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The Power of Storytelling

Insights from the maker generate demand for the product

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You’re probably thinking, duh. And you’re right! Yet, events like the one I attended at the Elder Gallery for Contemporary Art in Charlotte, N.C., are less common than you would think. I was fortunate enough to receive an invite from the gallery owner for one of her “gallery talks” on Saturday afternoon, as well as for the exhibit opening the previous Friday night. Dubbed “Evolution,” the exhibit showcased the work of Chase Longford and Susan Barrett. As it often happens on the last day before a vacation, I ended up working quite late at the office that Friday night to wrap up any loose ends so I could leave with a clean conscience – and I missed the opening. But I made it a point to go to the gallery discussion, prioritizing the ability to meet the artists and listen to their stories over the opportunity to drink too much free wine – an unfortunate sign of getting old.

Both artists were present, but only one, Chase Longford, spoke about his work. I always find it fascinating to hear the backstory of creatives, what inspired them along the way, what forces shaped their unique view of the world. I enjoy art, and apply to it (like everyone else does, I suppose) my own experiences (and baggage) to interpret its meaning (for me). What I see and what those around me see will most likely be very different. But that day in the gallery, we all heard the artist’s story together, and therefore we were united, if by nothing else than the same foundational information from which we would then launch into our own interpretation of his pieces.

Following this event, I headed over to The Mint Museum Randolph to check out the 14th Annual Potters Market there. The market was held in a large tent on the lawn of the museum, and it showcased roughly 60 artisans and their work. I enjoyed wandering the market to view the wares, but more so the opportunity to speak directly with the creators of these handcrafted objects and hear firsthand their stories about how they work and their individual techniques. I found, not surprisingly, that it was understanding the “how” and the “why” that then compelled me to buy.

Retailers struggle daily with this issue, and often look at either technology or in-store communications to cover the gap. As a retail designer, I’m here to tell you its unlikely either of these will ever fill the bill completely. What I always found compelling about the New York store Story is the way the disparate products brought together tell the narrative, a calendar of events is orchestrated to reinforce the message, and the environment is reinvented to support the storytelling with each reset. But how is this replicable at scale? I guess we’ll have to keep an eye on what Rachel Shechtman does now that she’s at Macy’s. But for the rest of retail, how is true storytelling achieved?

The singular common advantage of the examples above relate to the laser-focused point of view of the individual, and the luxury of control they have because they alone are telling their story. What I am about to suggest is something akin to retail heresy, but here goes:

1.     Allow your franchisees to have a say: A franchise owner once told me that he couldn’t carry a particular category because it was outside of the corporate franchise guidelines. However, he knew his customers would be attracted to it, and carrying these products in his store would afford him exposure to that products’ customer base. Simple fix on that: allow and even encourage the franchise owner to self-select a certain percentage of their inventory as complimentary product that may be “off the grid.” Corporate awards should be given annually to the franchisee with the most well-curated assortment.

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2.     Empower store managers with entertainment budgets and encourage unique and local in-store programming. I dare, say even require, the managers and their teams to develop a calendar of events that reinforces the season, the locale and who they are to their customer base. Managers should be incentivized on event attendance metrics and social media postings.

3.     Let your customers have a voice in-store. Sometimes your customers can tell the story of you better than you can yourself. Figure out how to share those stories organically – whether through live social media feeds (risky but there’s software to filter the bad stuff), video content of customer interviews or review tags put on garment hangers. Nordstrom has played with this by noting pinned products in store.

4.     Give store staff a stronger voice. Encourage creativity across the board. Empower (and fund) their efforts. This should not be exclusive to stores like REI, where staff recommendations are posted along with club notices. This should be part of every retailer’s culture and training regimen. The sales people in store must be brand advocates themselves, otherwise how can they possibly influence customers to be the same? That starts with a strong culture, based on values people can rally around. Allow your sales associates to chart new territories: invite design students to change out the visual merchandising or create feature walls per season; feature products by local designers or craftsmen; bring in guest speakers to share insights on topics that they know their customers are interested in. If the training is solid, the choices staff make will be good ones. This has the potential to redefine localization in a much more meaningful and authentic way than any design element ever could.

5.     Celebrate the good stuff! I recently spent an afternoon with a class of senior interior design students working on the PAVE design competition. This year it is sponsored by The Home Depot. Part of the kick-off for the project was research on The Home Depot beyond the brief that was provided with the competition. It amazed me all of the things the retailer does, most notably with veterans – I had no idea about any of it. While waving the charitable flag too much can come off as self-serving, it is vital to recognize that the younger generations of shoppers are very scrupulous about giving their money to corporate cultures with a heart and a soul. Figure out a way to share not only what good deeds you do, but invite your customers to do that good with you to supersize the effort.

Ultimately, if shopping is entertainment, it should be fun. Again, I’m sure you’re saying duh. But ask yourself, how often is it? The answers are easy, the doing is made harder because control may be lost. But sometimes a little chaos is just what is needed to restore order.

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