Commentary

Retailers like J.Crew are obsessed with data. (And it’s killing your shopping experience.)

As a shopper, it’s a routine you already know extremely well by now. It goes like this: You walk into your favorite fashion retail store. You’re welcomed by a retail floor assistant. They repeatedly greet you with a scripted engagement every three minutes until you checkout or leave. And that’s when your shopping hell really begins.

Store attendant: “Will that be all for you?”

Me: “Yes”

SA: “Email?”

Me: “Ugh…Web…@….”

SA: “Address?”

Me: “NO!”

SA: “Okay, will that be credit or debit?”

Me: “DEBIT.”

SA: “Okay, please swipe when the keypad lights up.”

Me: (mumble)

Machine: [buzzing noise]

SA: “Oh sir, please insert the card. You have a security chip thing.”

Me: “(under breath) F***”

Machine: [Waits 45 seconds]

SA: “Okay sir, if you take 10 minutes and fill out this questionnaire at the bottom of your receipt, you’ll have a chance to win a $75 shopping spree.”

From Web Smith

From start to finish, this in-store checkout process takes 4–5 minutes. Checkout efficiency is a vital consideration for retailers, and a nearly four-minute checkout process may not hurt conversion rates, necessarily. But it may affect repeat business and customer satisfaction, which can lead loyal customers to dismiss the retailer.

As one-click checkouts become more common in online sales, physical retail— once the pacesetter for a brand — becomes an increasingly subpar experience.

The reason? Retailers are using their stores as data-gathering centers, instead of making sure shoppers are treated to something special. Once upon a time, the in-store experience set the standard for all other brand channels. But in the past 3–5 years, this has been sacrificed in an industry-wide push for pesky data collection. The objectives of a brick and mortar’s in-store data are as follows:

  1. To make advertising promotions more personal.
  2. To bolster profits by sending you frequent reminders of new lines, and offers early in the season.
  3. To track data-driven lifestyle trends and changes.
  4. To understand, in minute detail, the top 5 best-selling products, colors, prints graphics, etc. in their total addressable market.
  5. To fine tune their pricing strategy based on competitors.

These aren’t sinister objectives by any means, and perhaps the knowledge gathered does help the bottom line. But it’s also growing the dependency on data for data’s sake. The results of this are clear: At a time when thinking consumer-first and offering differentiation are both key, the checkout processes at J.Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Finish Line, Vineyard Vines, and other nationally prominent retailers, are entirely uniform. Whether or not it is effective is an entirely different argument.

Traditionally in e-commerce, if an online shopper hasn’t completed a purchase, it’s because of five main reasons. These include, in order of probability: hidden charges at checkout (including shipping); having to register before purchase; unclear delivery details; a lengthy checkout process; or a customer service number not provided on the website. Before, each problem was exclusive to e-commerce. But now, due to new retailers’ new in-store data collection policies, two of them—having to register before purchase, and a lengthy checkout process—are also now brick-and-mortar deficiencies. It’s an unnecessary regression: while most online shops have successfully fixed these five deficiencies, the physical retail experience has continued to add barriers to the sale.

From Web Smith

For large brands like J.Crew and The Gap, though, doubling down on their much-improved online presence would make more sense.

Bridging the gap

By focusing on strengthening the brand experience for tablet and mobile customers, J.Crew, for our purposes, could bridge the gap between desktop and mobile conversion. Below, I’ve included a three-pronged alternative to J.Crew’s current in-store data strategy.

First, J.Crew could introduce an editorial-driven mobile app with Stripe integration to make it easy to buy. Inside the app, they could produce more content like the above. It would allow them to put out premium content similar to Mr. Porter, around which they could then use to build an organic audience.

From J.Crew

Second, using a Medium-like measure, customers who read articles from start to finish could be rewarded with discounts. At retail locations, purchases could also be completed by scanning the app at the register, saving shoppers time by bypassing petty data-collection processes. This would be as simple as integrating Apple Pay and Android Pay inside the app.

Finally, app subscribers (whose credit cards would be saved), could receive desktop notifications on short-term, members-only sales that last for 5–10 minutes. This could replace brochures (no one reads these anymore).

A cohesive brand experience like this would allow companies to promote themselves in a tasteful way. Not only would it lead to more brick-and-mortar interaction, it would also migrate data collection responsibilities from stores to apps—which is where it rightfully belongs.

Web Smith is a co-founder of Mizzen+Main, a performance-driven menswear brand based in Dallas, TX. The views reflected here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Lean Luxe. This is an edited and slightly rewritten version of a piece that first appeared on Medium.

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