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How not to fade into mediocrity

with 25 years of experience in conceptualizing and helping develop store concepts for traditional and nontraditional retail venues, I have been fortunate to associate with some of the brightest retail visionaries in the business. Good merchants possess a keen wisdom and ability to identify the next big retail trend, but they must also be savvy enough to know when to move on.

In the past quarter century, concepts have emerged that ultimately revolutionized the industry. They've come, they've gone, and some even came around for a return engagement. This goes for both products and retail concepts; today's fashions are strikingly similar to what was worn during the rebellious '60s, and does anyone else remember Old Chicago Mall?

Too often the lifecycle of a new concept looks like this: First, management embarks on an idea that will leapfrog the competition. Committing substantial resources on a branded image, the prototype opens to accolades and awards. Customers flock to the store for its unique merchandise. The retailer goes on an aggressive expansion campaign fueled by a relentless refining of the design, which cuts the heart out of it, just to be able to open more stores. The merchandise selection's distinctiveness begins to wane, and the competition catches up, offering comparable merchandise. The concept fades into mediocrity or disappears altogether.

A contributing factor is that today's customer has changed significantly. Entering a store, they know what they are looking for, performing critical evaluations on product quality and value before purchasing.

Even if they are fooled once, they learn quickly and seldom give you a second chance to redeem yourself. With the impact of current experiential retailing, the bar has been raised to almost unattainable heights as to what will be new or interesting to consumers.

How, then, can retail showmen and entertainment merchants succeed? First, understand the market to be served and strategize a business that fits customers' needs, desires and aspirations.

Second, define a difference. Simply installing entertainment, the latest interactive technology or a warehouse look reminiscent of Old Navy is not a guarantee for success.

Next, integrate the ability to change the facility, even if this only means communicating that you understand that trends are evolving.

Finally, for multi-unit operators, don't expect that the successful concept will work everywhere. Plan to go through this exercise for each outlet you operate.

The Internet also holds significant opportunity to those who pause and reflect on the possibilities, as evidenced by two recent events that took place simultaneously.

This past November, members of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) met in Atlanta for their annual convention and trade show. These makers of old-time fun, virtual-reality thrills and high-speed excitement were meeting to discuss their vision of the future in creating theme parks, retail stores and restaurants.

Meanwhile, some 2,000 miles away in Las Vegas, members of the Internet economy community were meeting at Comdex to discuss their views of the future. Many of the leaders of this community are working hard to create a future commerce that is entirely digital - perhaps predicting the elimination of anything analog or requiring a physical environment.

It was ironic that these two important activities were happening at the same time and with relative indifference to one another. When these two experiential focuses converge, the vehicle for truly innovative methods of delivering entertainment, services and products will have arrived.

In my vision, future developers and retailers will initiate multi-platform brand management programs that include "virtually immediate cybersites," "low-tech catalogs," "drive-in/drive-out convenient satellites," "outside-of-routine experiential flagships" and "yet-to-be-identified media." Such futuristic thinking is essential in order to compete and survive.

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