When Will the Wonder Return to Retail?

Many of you, along with people throughout the nation, probably spent a portion of Thanksgiving Day watching the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—an event that practically launches the holiday season and has been televised since 1948, after the film “Miracle on 34th Street” helped bind its connection to the Christmas season.​

But Macy’s isn’t the sole owner of that close association between the department store and the wonder of the holidays, though. It used to be a common thing found in every city of the United States, with local department stores pulling out all the stops at Christmastime.

In fact, those retailers once created special events and spectacles for children and families that didn’t overtly involve shopping. Some stores set up rooms for children while their parents shopped, while others built 40 ft. slides for kids to “zoom down to toyland.”

“In places with more than one department store, loyalty was intense. People would have arguments about whose was the ‘real Santa Claus. The by-product was that they would make a lot of money, but it wasn’t presented that way. The idea was that you just had to draw in the customers, and you had the merchandise that they wanted.”

~ Bruce Kopytek, The Department Store Museum

According to retail consultant, Sanford Stein (author of “Retail Schmetail”), not only were the events a reflection of the holiday, but they were also a reflection of the local culture, informing customers of the food and festivities the stores offered. “The families that made trips to those stores were treated to a level of experience, of wonderment, of beauty—of excellence in merchandising—that involved mixing art and commerce,” says Stein.

“The focus wasn’t on transactions. The physical store always has a spark of joy or inspiration.”

~ Amy Vener, retail vertical strategy lead at Pinterest.

While the holidays continue to be a major marketing event for physical retailers with flagship store locations, such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, the suburban mall now serves as the “master of ceremony” for visiting Santa, although there’s often a lot less fanfare.

Unfortunately, much of the spectacle these days is focused more on price cuts, and promotions than on wonderment and magic. “That type of shopping actually requires little fuss, and is, rather, quite practical—light on discovery, heavy on price and convenience—and, easily accomplished online,” points out as Vener.

Another factor in the loss of retail wonderment might stem from the reality that American consumers don’t have the time—or the money—for frivolity. Another possible reality is that many retailers have lost sight of who their customers are, suggests branding strategist Brian Kelly. “Now a well lit store, with open aisles to push a shopping cart, and a broad range of goods from grocery through home, all priced at an everyday, price.”

That being said, Sanford Stein notes that not only is there plenty of room for storytelling in retail, but also that people respond to it. “It was at the heart of the old-school department store holiday activity, and it was also good for business,” he says.

“We know that emotion drives sales. Telling a story and creating an experience are key to selling and have been for much of the last 100 years. One of my mentors, one of the grand old retail designers of the 20th century, Ken Walker, was the one who first used the term ‘retail theater’ — and that’s what it’s really about. It’s about creating an experience where the product is a player, but not the be-all and end-all.”

~ Stanford Stein via Retail Dive

Storytelling creates the type of magical moments that are memorable and sharable, but many business owners don’t seem to be focusing on that these days. Creating magic moments involves planning and careful thinking, which is probably why so many businesses settle for good customer service instead. Certainly, customer service has it’s place and purpose, but it’s also what people expect.

Magic, on the other hand, is something that is unexpected and when the magic moment happens, the customer’s face lights up or they exclaim, “Wow!”

“Resist the temptation to settle for being a bullet point in the customer’s day. Be magic, make a memory and earn word of mouth conversation.”

~ The Washington Post

The great thing is, there’s nothing that says magic has to be reserved for the holidays. Retailers can make magic happen in their stores all year long. But it’s imperative to have a plan not just to bring people into the store during the holidays, but to keep them coming back all the way through the end of the year…and beyond.

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Sherene Funk is the author of the contemporary romance Autumn in Your Arms and two small business e-books. She is a voracious reader who owns more books than she can ever read in this lifetime. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she worked in advertising for many years before moving to her current writing position at Rain Retail Software. She researches non-stop to see what successful retailers do and loves to share what she learns with small business owners.