Thursday, April 9, 2009

Merchandising & Design: New vs. Old

It might be said that truly great merchandisers—maybe even designers—buy or create for themselves. Whether or not that is true, all great merchandisers and designers I have met have a very concrete idea of their customers. Mostly, in the past, they have derived this concept of their ideal customer from their very rich imaginations, acute observation of society, intuitive understanding about art and culture, and a general feel for the Zeitgeist. When all of this comes together, they express their creativity by discovering the next got-to-have-it handbag or knowing that lime green is this season’s accent color or putting their design sensibility to work creating the newest, perfect little black cocktail dress.

Regardless of how much data is now being poured into the design and buying process, how much neuroscience is playing a part in probing the brains of consumers, the simple fact remains that merchandising and design remain more art than science. But how this creativity is applied makes all the difference: Do you as a designer seek to impart your vision to your customers? Or do you seek to meet your customers’ needs and wants in an attempt to fuse your design sensibility with your customers’? The former attitude involves a creative projection onto the world; the latter point of view suggests collaboration or, perhaps more cynically, meeting the market demands of your customer demography.

Having spent a large part of my career writing about and consulting in multichannel marketing, I have observed some of the country’s most savvy and successful merchandisers. To a person, every merchandiser has a highly developed sense of the customer they buy or design for. She has a name, a look, a family. They know what car she drives, what she does for a living. Where she lives, the colors she loves, the schools she went to. They know her hobbies, her frailties. How much money she’s likely to spend on clothing, on her home, on her children. She has become a video clip embedded into the merchandiser’s brain. In the catalog world, some of the best known merchandisers out of this school are Roger Horchow, Lillian Vernon, and Chuck Williams, to name a very few.

Merchandisers in the catalog world, unlike in-store retail, had the opportunity to develop well-defined points of view, find the products that expressed them, and, then, seek out the customers who wanted to share that vision through trial-and-error mailings. In-store retailers, although they might have had an equally well-articulated aesthetic, needed to advertise to find enough local customers who found their merchandise assortment appealing to drive them into the store. As a result, their vision needed to be broader to hit the numbers that would result in enough traffic to make sales.

The internet has changed the game. At its best, the internet brings one to many, many to one—your voice, vision or products can be heard, viewed or bought by the world, whether you reside in Kansas City or Katmandu. The internet allows merchandisers to find highly specific niche markets or to provide more mass appeal products—the former resulting in the SEM game; the latter a battle for customers through discounting.

For designers, in the new world of instant verbal and visual communications via internet and digital photography, the prospect of creating new products and getting them to market before a competitor has become daunting. Even couturiers can hardly keep a collection together during a season. Just hours after a collection debuts on the runway, manufacturers have already copied the best, which, in some cases, might even appear in a store in just over a week. The result: the consumer gets the “look” at a fraction of the price, but the “look” is already passé. It’s far worse than the decline in price of a new car when it’s driven off the lot.

With an increasing number of outlets for product—also due to the internet, which has a comparatively low barrier to entry—companies can quickly react to new products and, in the case of low-cost copiers or rip-off artists, can undercut and under price new, hoped-for best sellers. Of course, copying best sellers is nothing new, but the speed with which it’s occurring is startling.

Designers now are producing far more than Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer Collections. Pre-Resort, Resort, Spring, Autumn—whatever—Collections abound, and most designers can hardly afford to design and turn around a full new line in these short time frames—let alone create an inspired, compelling line that women want to have.

Rather than simply imparting your vision or catering to a particular demographic, there is a new approach to design and merchandising, let’s call it the wiki approach—one that works collaboratively not just with the Design Team but with the customer herself.

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