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What is Boring Retail? And How to Avoid It in Your Stores


Retail is in a state of flux right now. Stores are shuttered and long-established brands like Toys R Us are disappearing. Nine West, Bon Ton, and Claire’s are among the newest retailers filing for bankruptcy in 2018, and they may not be the last. Consumers think that retail is dying because of the threat posed by Amazon and other online stores, but experts say otherwise as some physical stores are standing tall and weathering the storm. In response to the changing face of retail, industry expert Steve Dennis says “Physical retail isn’t dead. Boring retail is.” Dennis says the so-called retail apocalypse is a narrative that makes for great headlines but is far from the truth.

What is true is that retailers must innovate and create stores that aren’t boring. What is boring retail? Any retail that is dull, generic, and unremarkable. They need to differentiate themselves from the crowd especially in this age of online shopping and create a memorable retail experience.


Make Retail Stores a Destination

The term “customer experience” is used time and time again, however, it’s a core part in avoiding boring retail. Retailers should see themselves as less than a place where products are sold and more as a destination for consumers. Consumers aren’t merely looking for merchandise when they visit a store — they’re in a world where they can order nearly anything with the click of a button. Retailers need to realize that consumers want information, sensory experience and more, and in turn, make their stores a destination for these desires. Retailers can look at Ulta Beauty, which saw net sales rise by 22% over the last five years, as a powerful example of a store which shifted from retailer to destination.

As Walgreens and CVS stores began adding expanded beauty sections to their locations, Ulta saw a way to compete with the drugstores and Amazon by making their stores a beauty destination. The company sells high-end brands such as Clinique and MAC but also focused their attention on the mass-market beauty category. CVS and Walgreens currently sell the same products like CoverGirl or Maybelline, so Ulta looked at how to stand out. Their strategy included repositioning the mass-market products to better meet the consumers’ needs with elaborate displays, product testers and brand imagery.

Shoppers walking into an Ulta store will see the opposite of boring retail: a wonderland of highlighters, blushes, lipstick and more, but they aren’t just there to buy a product and leave like they would at a drugstore. Instead, Ulta associates are on hand to tell each customer about the brand, make recommendations, and highlight niche brands that have a good social media following. The retailer also made the beauty shopping experience a digital experience by integrating their Ulta app: customers can use the app’s GlamLab feature to virtually try on makeup after taking a selfie, then shop for the product right in-store, plus scan a product while in the store to read reviews and tips. To see what more the customers want, Ulta examines buying behavior with the company’s loyalty program and makes adjustments to their offerings after identifying trends.


Boring Retail: Evolve or Get Run Over

Toys R Us is perhaps one of the best examples of how retailers need innovation to keep up with the changing taste of consumers. When it was first established, Toys R Us was a child’s dream: a colorful happy place filled with every toy under the sun. All of this was inside the familiar striped building that beckoned you from the highway with its friendly animated giraffe, Geoffrey. Toys R Us became a force to be reckoned with as the world’s biggest toy store and the epicenter of toy crazes like Cabbage Patch Kids.

To consumers, Toys R Us was a playplace, store and experience all-in-one. Then the Internet arrived and with it, online shopping. Toys R Us tried to innovate to meet the demand with a website, and entered into an agreement with Amazon as an exclusive toy-seller on Amazon, redirecting However, Amazon opened up the marketplace to other vendors and began making their name in toy e-commerce. Toys R Us failed to reinvent its own online presence. Walmart and Target were also eyeing the toy business and slashed prices to capture shoppers while they were in-store; now customers visiting one of the big box stores could pick up a toy at the same time they picked up paper towels or a few groceries. The end result? Toys R Us was no longer a separate destination and it was too late to capture online business after the Amazon deal.

The new range of consumers, those children born in the late 1990s, had changed the way they played: digital toys, computer-linked toys and other electronics gadgets were coming into favor, and again, Toys R Us didn’t innovate. Customers weren’t treated to interactive displays, exciting merchandising and anything other than shelves stocked with toys, but this was something that other stores were offering. After awhile, in-store shopping in Toys R Us became like shopping in Walmart, just a big box store with shelves stuffed with toys — if customers were going to go to the store to shop, what was there that made the experience special over Target or Walmart? Nothing it seemed, and eventually, Toys R Us couldn’t keep up.


Redesign and Reinvent

Toys R Us didn’t invest in a redesign or reinvention of its stores and so the store became lackluster to consumers. Retailers today need to avoid boring retail by taking a close look at their stores and seeing how they can change as they open new locations. Reduced store size with smaller format stores or homes with significant technology advances like kiosks, information centers or digital signage can deliver a better experience to customers, while the ability to touch and try products in-person provides an edge over online shopping.

Top retailers are completely embracing a new wave of retail by reinventing their physical presence and offering experiential retail. Best Buy has withstood the Amazon effect by paying attention to consumer trends. As music has evolved largely online, the retailer has announced they’ll stop carrying CDs by the end of June 2018, instead, the space once occupied by the format will be used to showcase new and exciting consumer electronics. Vinyl is still selling well and will remain at Best Buy. The takeaway here is that Best Buy is removing the baggage from its stores and streamlining its product offerings, then maximizing its physical presence to display TVs, sound systems and high-end products people prefer to see and test in person. The retailer also noted the growing influence of smart home technology and made a strategic partnership with Vivint. The partnership brought smart home experts into the Best Buy stores and made it possible for consumers to view smart products and design their own smart home system right in-store.

Retailers today can’t afford to be complacent no matter what consumer product category they offer, because once you’re ‘boring’ in the eyes of the consumer, it may be too late. They need to follow the path of Ulta or Best Buy to stay ahead of the curve and keep their stores competitive. 

Learn more about how retailers are leveraging technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the in-store customer experience in our content library, where you’ll find product overviews, case studies, and more.


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