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EXPERT ANALYSIS: Big-boxing boomers

The most overlooked consumer segment by today's large format retailers is the precious boomer population. Boomers — all customers — navigate through virtually every space of a store using the simple sequence of attract, engage, compare/select, transact and reassure.

The challenge for the retailer is making the space in between these events interesting enough that consumers will want to stick around and navigate through the large space. Baby boomers require reinventing the rules of retail space by making large, big-box spaces seem smaller.

Although boomers enjoy shopping, love being entertained and absorb information readily, they don't want to walk too far to achieve any of these things. Oh, and they won't come back to a store with their discretionary income if they simply can't shop it.

Large format retailers need to help boomers edit that which is unrelated to their needs, and this isn't easy in the land of plenty. Therefore, these retailers must ask themselves: How can my merchandise be in the right place at the right time with the right price and information?

Technology plays a large part in organizing information within these monstrous-sized sites. A WAP-armed (Wireless Application Protocol) sales force can relay pertinent information where it's needed instantaneously: product information, stock availability answers, price checks, special customer service needs, etc. — waiting for sales assistance is often the boomers number one complaint.

WAP certainly goes a long way in filling the gaps in the five-step customer journey, not necessarily just in physical terms, but in terms of customer perception of service. Traversing the great spaces of big box retail this way might constitute, after online shopping, retail's next great revolution. Though hotels already have this system in place, retailers have been slow to follow suit.

Large format retailers will never be able to meet the customer-to-employee ratio that should, in the eyes of the customer, be one to one. The trick will be to manage those customers' expectations and exceed them in designated areas that can be easily managed. Create areas around information points that are of true value to the customer, both physically and mentally. A seating area, library or café may be just the value-add needed to enhance customer experience and create brand loyalty.

Positioning staff and demo or conversation piece products near this oasis, so the compare/select step in the customer journey is fully supported. Without interactive units (at times taking the place of sales associates), desire diminishes — after all, shopping's greatest impetus is the desire to fulfill certain needs.

In addition, letting customers do some of their own information gathering is often perceived by boomers in particular as freedom to personalize their experience. Just as important as the placement of information zones are the signs guiding the customers to them. They need to be large, bright and without glare to aid the bespectacled boomers.

By way of contrast to the information zones (an integral part of the customer journey) the goal of some stopovers is to be unexpected, surprising customers. Masterfully cross-merchandised, these punctuation marks relieve shoppers of the utilitarian and encourage the whimsy.

Studies show down time is a thing of the past, replaced by the need of ceaseless activity. Many of the best home improvement/hardware retailers created these zones. By providing inspiring vignettes, these retailers have earned the term “living magazine”.

Baby boomers weren't raised on big-box stores, and though they've grown into them, gladly taking home dishwasher and dog food in the same cart, they can just as easily grow out of them.

Unique needs for accessible information, brighter lighting, better signage, accessible shelving and overall service must be met.

Big-box sales continue to be robust but as a format, its biggest assets — real estate and merchandise variety — can be its biggest liability if the older boomer population isn't carefully considered.


Mark Artus
As a partner at Fitch, in charge of Consumer Environments, North America, Artus is based in Columbus, Ohio, Fitch's headquarters, but oversees a growing regional office network including Phoenix, Boston, San Francisco, and Orlando. Since coming to the United States in 1993, Fitch's consumer environments work and brand design have become an award-winning part of Fitch's portfolio, having garnered several SADI, NASFM, Chain Store Age, and ISP/VM+SD honors. Mark has a degree in architecture from Nottingham University in England, where he was graduated with a First Class B.A. (Honors) with commendation.

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