What it says on the tin
Having recently been enlightened about the important role retail store plays in the communication-mix, I was inspired to have a look at the store that delivers what is arguably one of the best holistic brand experiences in Sydney: the Apple store in George Street.
First some digressions…
When you visit a store – particularly a flagship store – you are visiting the brand at home and you get to know it in its natural habitat. The brand at home is as good as it gets. If it fails to impress here it probably never will.
Each visit goes to prove the effectiveness of previous marketing efforts, but each visitor is inevitably also under the influence of certain expectations made by these efforts. Promises have been made and the capability of the brand to deliver on these is about to be put to the test.
Being the first meeting between brand and customer, the retail store is an arena for forming of first impressions. However, the power-balance dictates that this process is a one-way street; the customer not having to do any hard work to impress the brand. The marketplace is a battle of the brands, where survival is granted by the consumers in exchange for respect and credibility.
Brands with flagship stores have an advantage in that there is no disruptive noise from competing brands, including the retailer’s. In traditional retail stores, less opportunities to deliver a brand experience means the actual products will be in focus; making the retail environment less effective as a communication channel. Over the last years retailers have also increased their leverage significantly compared to the products they sell, further complicating the individual brands’ ability to deliver a physical in-store experience.
In retail stores with a larger number of less dominating brands, such as supermarkets and bookstores, the retailer’s own brand will be more prominent. Interestingly, it is largely defined by the combination of the brands on offer.
The retailer-brand also influences the product-brands and their distribution strategies make for a powerful message to the market. Which is why it was surprising to discover that the Norwegian luxury-brand of water (it’s silly, I know), Voss, formerly barely available to Madonna, is now being sold in a chain of supermarkets. For only $6 for 0.35l (This brand is a testament to the power of branding and people’s insistence to use brands as our primary medium for self promotion)! By distributing its ‘premium’ water through one of the five warlords of the national supermarket price-war, Voss couldn’t do more to devaluate its brand if they tried.
I would like to know how much the individual brands have over the lay-out and design of the store; the placement of their products and the presentation. I guess it comes down to one’s place in the food-chain and that retail stores are forced to reflect the hierarchy of market shares. The bigger you are: the better you get treated: the more you sell and so it goes…
In Norway Coke denied the supermarkets to sell its biggest local competitor, Solo. Although the move was deemed illegal and Coke was forced to retreat, there are several slightly more subtle tactics left for the powerful to unleash on their inferiors.
And now, back to Apple…
First thing you do is walking through a glass-door and for a moment you exist in a space that is neither street nor store. A glass front creates a smooth transition between the Apple world and the slightly less stylish outside world, here represented by George Street.
Super stylish silver/blue glass stairways transport you between the spheres of Apple heaven: three levels of computers, phones and Ipods. In other words, lots of buttons to play with.
I was allowed to take pictures inside the store, which was a pleasant surprise. Only rule was no staff could appear in the photos. That’s fair enough, or it would have been if it wasn’t for the fact that the staff nearly outnumbered the customers. On a Saturday!
There is of course an upside to this overwhelming number on staff, as they provide you with a level of attention which, apparel aside, is quite unique in retail (this is of course easier when you have three stores rather than hundreds). What separates Apple from apparel is that the staff leave you to play around with the products without making you feel bad about not buying anything.
If a store is the home of a brand, the employees are the hosts and effectively the personification of the brand. A great brand has the ability to make the staff proud to work for it and the subsequent friendliness and enthusiasm will reinforce the brand image(in the case of Apple: young, fun, modern, cool etc). The opposite scenario means a downwards spiral and a lousy experience for the customer.
My humble prediction for 2010 is that the employees of Voss will go from being too cool for school to about as cool as Adam Sandler in The Waterboy.
Ps. I contacted the person responsible for the Apple store project, Phil Schoutrop of Buchan Architectures, with some questions, but he was unfortunately bound by confidentiality agreements.