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The shift in customer experience from department stores to boutiques



When I began working for Macy's 5 years ago, I was excited to be part of a huge national brand, known for celebrations, the parades and firework shows, and the unforgettable in-store displays.  As I grew with the company, I was hired into the Specialized Selling team, a highly-skilled and well-trained group with two main objectives:  acquire new customers through the Wedding and Gift Registry program, and deepen client loyalty with the Personal Stylist program.  As a Regional Director for those teams, I made sure delivering a top-notch client experience was the teams’ number one priority!


As we got to know our customers and developed deeper relationships, we learned that “client experience” means many different things, to different people, and it is up each sales professional to determine what kind of experience a customer is looking to have, and what they value in that experience.  Some customers value time, meaning they want to run into the store, get what they need, and quickly get out.  Others value competitive pricing; either huge discounts or simply staying under budget.  Still others value the emotions that they feel as they experience a welcoming atmosphere, with visual experts who are creating engaging displays.  And to yet another customer, value means having someone help select the perfect wardrobe items to make sure their spend is on items that fit perfectly into their lifestyle.  


As a Regional Director for my team, I made sure each sales professional had the knowledge, training, skills and time to get to know their customers, so they could delivered an experience that fulfilled the desired "value" to their customers.  And financially, it paid off.   With my specialized team sales over 25% above comps, when the rest of the company was 5% below last year, imagine my surprise when my peers, myself and our bosses were all laid off.  Yep!  In January, Macy's decided to discontinue the leadership of the Specialized Selling team.


I struggled for weeks to wrap my head around how the company known for celebrations and creating experiences could lay off the entire leadership team of two very celebration-focused programs, Wedding and Gift Registry and the Personal Stylists.  I was told by a person on the Macy's leadership, whom I felt I had been a part of, that "Macy's was changing directions and our services were no longer needed".


Today, as I read the article by Haley Peterson, "Macy's just confirmed the end of department stores as we know them", I see how the pieces are possibly fitting together.  Haley Peterson has been a better reader of the tea-leaves on the outside than many of us had been while on the inside.  In her article, she talks of two "tests" that were occurring:  one in the shoes department, and one based on discounting merchandise.  She suggests that the majority of Macy's customers, Millennials in particular, prefer to shop on their own, and they want deep discounts.  So Macy's is morphing into what the customers want:  a self-service discounter.  Looking through the eyes of Haley, I can now see that when Jeff Gannett, President and CEO of Macy's used the words "reposition our brand", this is most likely what he was eluding to.


So here I am, almost four months removed from my former employer, saddened to hear the possible new direction that Macy's has taken.  The company that has been known for unforgettable customer experiences, celebrations, and bringing communities together in big ways, is choosing the path of the discount retailer, assuming that customers are choosing with their wallets for bigger discounts and self service.  Is this the end of the Retail Customer Experience?  What about having an experience that stimulates all your senses? The colors, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feels, the emotions!  I think it is in the small boutiques and local stores where the next chapter of the Retail Customer Experience will be written.


Over half of the US Economy is based on small businesses. The Small Business Association says that a 10% shift in spending from chain stores to local businesses would bring on average $235 million per year to the local community.  That is $235M that will go to the local community, instead of corporate investors. So if our department stores are shifting away from the retail experience in favor of low-cost goods and self service, then let's recognize that there is an alternative experience that can be had through our local boutiques and small businesses.  It can be an experience that appeals not only to all of our senses, but also enriches our lives, knowing that we are supporting the growth of our local communities. This is why I now encourage you to also support local!


I created I Speak Boutique to do just that:  focus on supporting local shops by helping them create unforgettable shopping experiences that will help them grow, not just their businesses, but also their communities. 


Please share your favorite local shops, boutiques, eateries and hangouts.  Let's show that experience matters and say thank you to those who are making it happen!