This is a guest post written by Bob Phibbs, retail expert and CEO of The Retail Doctor. Views are the author's own.
I love to discover a brick and mortar retailer who, with design, makes me feel something. I had that experience at the relatively new RH Gallery in the historic Meatpacking District of New York.
I've wanted to visit this store since last fall when RH announced the opening with a four-page ad in the Sunday New York Times declaring: "The death of retailing is overrated."
Boy were they right based on my experience inside their store. There are few retail places I would ever call jaw-dropping, but this is one of them.
The five-story showroom blurs the lines between restaurant and retail and between indoor and outdoor. The entrance leads you into a five-story atrium. Unlike most retailers who have gobs of merchandise crammed just inside the entrance because they fear you won't venture in more than eight feet, this entire atrium walkway through the middle of the store is devoid of furniture in the middle.
My gaze is caught by the glass elevator then swept up the atrium to the soaring glass roof. A seated young woman at a gold desk asks, "May I help you?" To which I answer, "No thanks, just looking." It seemed like a big miss to me not to have a more conversational greeting at such an upscale space.
I could already tell I was on my own. I found myself going floor to floor to check out what made this 90,000-foot showroom such a game-changer. It had the same grays, browns and neutrals I'd seen at their stores before but here all of it was given the space to breathe.
That's important because the rooms are setup to be viewed from many angles and nothing feels stuffed or slighted. There is an elegant restaurant on the top floor which features all of their indoor/outdoor furniture and chandeliers and has sweeping views of the lower East Side of New York. On the third floor is a wine tasting and espresso bar.
There are no sample books in view at this furniture store, instead fabric samples receive their own spot-lit gallery for easy consideration. I can't think of another retailer who places picture lights over the mirrors. And the use of mirrors expands the already open feel of the individual rooms.
On each floor, designers coached their clients and RH's own in-house designers were doing the same.
On the third floor, salespeople seemed to be stationed near the atrium wall, and one came and found me a few minutes after I stood admiring one chandelier. She was efficient and knowledgeable and used a tablet to get information and provide me with a quote. Mind you, I did not come into the store for a chandelier.
She didn't bother to ask me about the project or the room it would go in, she didn't upsell the sconces which I had to ask about, or suggest any add-ons. That was a fairly big miss for a luxury retailer operating on such a high level. She should have been asking me about my room and suggesting other things to sell me the RH lifestyle.
Instead, being the Retail Doctor that I am, I asked her about costs, measurements, shipping and delivery. All she did was pull out a tablet and politely answer my questions. And yes I bought the chandelier and sconces but only because I sold them to myself.
While some might classify that type of customer service I expected as sales-y, for most customers, it is the difference between buying a new sports coat and a complete outfit. Once a customer has said yes to one product, it is much better service to show them all the possible add-ons that would complement it.
But you won't do that without a desire to build rapport and the salesperson helping me showed none of that desire.
One thing she did offer was a membership which would save me 25% off regular price and an additional 20% off sale merchandise. Restoration Hardware has discovered, like Costco and Amazon, that membership is much more powerful than a loyalty program.
No "get on our list for our private sale," no waiting until some silly "friends and family" marketing campaign is unveiled, get it now and at the best price.
It also means most anyone buying anything from them is tracked and their data is collected. Brilliant.
The inclusion of a restaurant at the top and a wine tasting bar on the third floor have made the RH Gallery more than a shopping destination. And yet …
Many retailers like Ralph Lauren, GAP, Lord & Taylor, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tommy Hilfiger have closed or are planning to close flagship locations citing how much it costs to operate them. Most critics are saying that retailers are realizing that having a large store in an expensive part of town, offering the same experience as any other store, no longer makes sense.
But what I'm telling you is most of these retailers have missed the opportunity to seize on their location by offering an exceptional experience that goes with the exceptional store design. They have been reduced to just a bigger warehouse with the same stuff as the mall.
Retailers closing their flagship stores squandered the very thing they can do to propel their sales, deliver a branded shopping experience.
Not an efficient shopping experience.
Not a kiosk experience.
But a human experience.
Until CEOs value the human over the merchandise we'll see the potential of such game-changing stores reduced to features in Architectural Digest, instead of featured in the NYT and WSJ for truly being a game-changer.