Last night I visited a mall.

“Four days before Christmas?” you ask. “Are you mad, man?”

Maybe, but we found the mall sad and empty. The week before Christmas!

I was inspired to write a poem. Please enjoy “A Visit From the Retail Apocolypse,” and following the prose, I’ll share a bit of context and advice. Without further ado, and with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore and Charles Dickens…

‘Twas four nights before Christmas, and all through the mall,
Not a creature was stirring, the crowds were so small!
The decorations were hung ’round the galleria with care,
In hopes that some shoppers soon would be there.

But unlike the ghosts of Christmases past,
The shops were all empty, the clerks looked downcast.
No bustle! No shoppers! No last-second buyer!
No families or children! The scene was quite dire.

So I strolled from the food court (I don’t need to get fatter),
And went to investigate to see what was the matter.
In the first store, I asked for the size that is mine,
“We don’t carry that here, you must shop online!”

In the next place, I struggled to roam through the store,
To maximize density, they’d crammed in more. More!
So crowded and cramped, they’d packed all the aisles,
That trying to get through was more like a trial.

The next store was empty, no clerk could be found,
The place was in chaos, with clothes in a mound.
Employees were chatting, their duties neglected,
Under a sign that proclaimed “Satisfaction’s our objective!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
I could not help but recall, dead retailers gone by.
Borders, Circuit City, Blockbuster, and KB,
American Apparel, Wet Seal, The Limited, RIP.

In that moment, so dispirited and glum,
I was visited by the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come,
“This mall will be shuttered,” he uttered grim-faced,
“These brands will go under, their memory erased.”

I cried, “Why show this if all hope has passed?”
In response, he whispered, “The die is not cast.
If retailers honor customers deep in their soul,
Put them first, do them right, and above all, make them whole!”

“Leaders must live in the future, not just this quarter,
Investing in customers can save brick and mortar,
People crave experiences, they want to feel cherished,
Brands that treat them like wallets will all soon have perished.”

“Customer experience can save them,” he declared as he vanished,
“Without satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy, their brands will be banished!”
And I heard him exclaim, ere he disappeared from sight,
“Next season will be happy if you just get CX right!”

 

An actual photo of a shopping mall in Chicago last night, four days before Christmas

An actual photo of a shopping mall in Chicago last night, four days before Christmas

The setting of this story is accurate. my wife and I visited a mall in downtown Chicago just four days prior to Christmas and found it depressingly empty. To get there, we passed a former mall, opened with great fanfare on the Magnificient Mile in 1990 that was closed in 2009. We also peered into the bright, enormous specialty housewares store that will be closing its doors after three decades to make way for a massive new Starbucks roastery. The bright lights of Michigan Avenue couldn’t hide the concern and fear of the retailers that line the street.

The retail experiences I listed in the poem all happened to me, although not just last night. They are an amalgamation of actual in-store experiences I have had in the past two months:

  • My wife and I visited two stores in a nearby mall only to hear they did not carry our sizes except online.
  • Another store, which used to be a longtime favorite of mine, has become so densely packed, it is difficult to walk through the store. Now, I refuse to visit–the experience is so claustrophobic and unpleasant, I simply won’t enter the place.
  • And I tried to buy a winter coat last month but needed some assistance. I gave up after the employees refused to interrupt their discussion to acknowledge me. Next to them was a sign declaring, honest to God, “Your satisfaction is our goal.”

I tried to add to the poem one additional retail disappointment that happened to me recently but couldn’t make it work in rhyme. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved four separate shipments that either arrived broken or incorrect. Finally, in exasperation, my wife and I ordered one last time, but we had it shipped to a store location rather than our home. We figured that if there was a problem, we could deal with an employee in person rather than the phone. We arrived at the retailer to find that the shipment was, once again, incorrect. We asked the woman who handed us the box for assistance, and her response was, “I’m sorry, but since you ordered online, you’ll have to call the 800-number.”

A lot of attention has been given to the “retail apocalypse.” Some say it’s not real. Some say it’s just beginning. Some blame Amazon, who could account for half of all US online sales within a few years.

But griping about Amazon will not help. And while increasing efficiency may be essential (for all companies, not just retailers), there is no way for retail to simply cut their way to long-term success or to cram their stores sufficiently to get per-square-foot sales into the black.  Short-term fixes cannot address the challenges of long-term trends; sustainable success comes from investment, bold strategy, great execution, and difficult leadership decisions.

Of course, I am not saying anything that anyone in retail (or out of it) does not already know. According to Gartner’s recent CX in Marketing Survey, 76% of marketers responsible for customer experience say their brands already compete mostly or completely on the basis of CX today, and 91% expect this to be the case in two years.

The challenge is how to make it happen. The discipline of customer experience offers a solution, but it won’t be easy.  CX is not merely about better ad targeting, improved next-best offers and greater personalization in emails and websites. Those can help, but true differentiation is going to come from rethinking your audience, gaining better insights into their needs and expectations, reframing your value proposition, fashioning new and more powerful customer journeys, offering customers more to do rather than just more to buy, brutally ripping down the barriers between off- and online operations far more than has yet been done, and reconsidering your brand’s goals, metrics, and employee rewards.

Retailers announced more than 8,000 store closures in 2017, and 2018 promises to be another (sad) record year. Tomorrow’s retail success stories will come from those brands that make the boldest changes today.

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