Convenience and Compelling Stories
Moderator Jenny Fine, executive editor, WWD and editor-in-chief, Beauty Inc., began the discussion with a look at the viability of department stores as specialty stores surge in today’s retail environment. For example, Nata Dvir, who was recently named Macy’s general manager for beauty, is creating a more open environment, enhanced customer experiences, curated assortments and cross-brand training for associates, as she transforms the department store retailer's cosmetics and fragrance business.
“The key is to animate the whole store. We are giving convenience and compelling stories to our customers, particularly in beauty and fragrance," explained Dvir. "Talking to our customers across all categories is what we are developing; and we’re training our beauty advisors to meet the needs of today’s customers. We’re seeing a lot of excitement among our partners and we’re amplifying the good.”
Violet Grey is billed as a content and commerce destination immersed in the realm of Hollywood beauty culture. According CEO Grey while her brand is glamorous, it also required a lot of hard work and people to bring the red carpet, as well as the latest inventions in beauty, together. Violet Grey collaborates with Hollywood’s leading artists and stars to curate the ultimate cosmetic wardrobe, with beauty products, tips and inspiration from industry experts and stars who know about the best in beauty.
“Culture and people are the most important. The Violet Grey brand evolved from a mood board to a multi-channel commerce and content business," said Grey. "In recruiting, I ask people what their favorite possession is, and have found it is very revealing to know that.”
She is responsible for the brand vision and creative direction and content for the digital magazine, The Violet Files, whose cover stories have included Eva Mendes, Cindy Crawford, Rachel Weisz and January Jones.
Rachel Shechtman, founder of the New York concept store, Story, has created a venue where stories come to life inside a 2000-square foot space that takes the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery, and sells things like a store. Shechtman, who said she believes in the power of objects to tell human stories, sees retail as a theater, a living magazine where objects beget wonder. Her experience in the field of non-traditional, merchandise-driven storytelling, inspired her to take the leap and open Story in 2011. Shechtman created her model of "Retail Media," by curating merchandise and events around a specific conversation. Partner brands serve as sponsors for the experience, benefitting from the exposure and opportunity to experiment and generate awareness in a new format; and the store tells a variety of branded stories with a range of themes. Clients have included American Express, Target and Coty. According to Shechtman, Story's approach represents a new way to share a brand, product or theme’s story, with a creative entrepreneurial impetus.
“Story is like a narrative between merchandise and event programming,” said Shechtman. “We bring brands that have authority and authenticity and present them as an experience in a per-square-foot package,” she said.
The stories, which change every three to eight weeks, represent a wide range of themes.
“We are more proactive than reactive. We come up with ideas for our stories largely informed by who our partners are; and we ask ourselves three things:
• Does a partner bring authority and authenticity?
• Do we like them? Story is our brand, and we believe in it; and
• Can we create a narrative for individuals ages 5 to 95?
We think of the story in layers, so we can reach a wide audience. Many of our customers come with their children, and families, so we have to be approachable for a wide age range,” said Shechtman.
Agility and Innovation
In response to the question of a large department store, like Macy’s being held to the same standards of agility and innovation as smaller venues, Dvir said.
“We are listening to our customers and we’re testing things in different places. On the West Coast, customers want something different than customers in Chicago. One of the things we’re known for is great brands," explained Dvir. "For the beauty story, we merchandise differently and essentially tell our customers what they need. We also work on technology that’s experiential, making sure it’s fun, so we can convert a fun experience to a sale.”
Macy's, she added, tests a lot in Los Angeles.
"Testing is a risk, but it gives us honest feedback,” Dvir explained.
Grey addressed the nature of the Amazon experience in today’s retail climate.
“If you have a product to sell, you need to have an Amazon strategy,” she said.
And while the customer is still king, Grey noted that Amazon has garnered 300 million customers—a significant number in the retail world. With that in mind, Violet Grey is exploring and navigating ways to bring its business to Amazon and carving out a place to create an environment that is trusted.
"The customer wants to shop on Amazon, but the customer also wants emotional connectivity, content and curation,” she explained.
Trust was a key factor throughout the discussion. Said Shechtman, “We are a great place for communicating with our customers with authority. It’s a challenge for us all to think about.”
When asked how the panelists see prestige beauty playing out on Amazon, Shechtman explained that she writes stories around health, food, fashion, and beauty.
"The rules that were made back in the day have changed. Different brands are living in different spaces.”
Shechtman cited a collaboration with Coty, noting that while you couldn’t buy the actual products at the Story store, you could share them on social media. Using visuals as part of the story is an important way to get people to engage. Shechtman also touted the impact of influencers in brand engagement, as well as in-store experiences, and highlighted an experience in which participants painted their nails in-store, and shared their favorite colors on social media. Makeover and braiding events were also successful ways to engage. In this environment, different deliverables are in play.
"Some say we’re a consultancy with a store," Shechtman noted. "Clients sometimes collaborate with learnings, and sometimes just utilize findings.”
But no matter, where, when and how they shop, customer satisfaction remains critical, Grey noted.
“Time is the ultimate luxury and curation is very important. The customer wants to feel really good about their purchase, so it’s important to do as much work as we can for them.”
Dvir emphasized the power of personal engagement.
“Some customers actually name the beauty advisor that assisted them. They are looking for personalization and service that makes you feel good about yourself and makes your life easier,” she said.
Dvir added that Macy's is unlocking the beauty advisor's true potential to have opportunities to talk to customers.
"It’s about influencers, clientelling (where customers are kept on file and contacted), and it’s about social media. There’s an evolution taking place between Macy’s customers and influencer partners that are part of Macy’s style team," Dvir explained. "These influencers are essentially cross-brand sales influencers that post different collections, and share different product stories with their followers.”
Grey noted the power of the Hollywood celebrity influencer, explaining how red carpet denizens present the products they like and use.
“Everyone would like to have their own celebrity stylist, and they can, through the influencers’ recommendations,” said Grey. “It’s really like sharing a curated culture."
Key Brand Attributes
What do these innovative retailers look for in a brand?
According to Dvir, the right launch is critical.
"So often the brands strive so much, but great product matters,” said Dvir.
Grey added that niche brands and their attendant stories really resonate.
"Human, niche brands that start with a great product are key,” she said.
Shechtman said she looks for what a product is doing that something else isn’t doing.
“Brands focus a lot on buyers, but your sales are dependent on the sales associates on the floor," she told CEW members. "I look for someone who is invested in the complete picture, not just the P.O. (purchase order)."
When further pressed by audience questions, points of difference emerged as a thread among the responses. Violet Grey is interested in anything and everything that will serve the customer, explained Grey who cited Dr. Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics, which re-introduces the skin’s own proteins for skin caring benefits.
Dvir echoed the role of product efficacy, adding, “People are looking for benefits in skin care and we see loyalty growing among those customers and their beauty advisors who have found the right product for them.”
As one might expect, when it comes to skin care, trust remains the critical component in the retail-customer equation.