Discovering Inspiration In The Retail Sector

Some bad news came for two large retailers at the end of 2011. Sears Holding Corporation, the parent of Sears and K-Mart, announced that it would close 100-120 stores across the United States. With some 4,000 outlets, this amounts to just a small percentage of the total stores. Unlike most of our libraries, retail stores will close if they fail to attract enough customers. As the Sears/K-Mart example demonstrates, even those identified as “marginal performers” will be targeted for closure. Marginal isn’t good enough in the retail industry. Whether it was owing to the bad economy, too much competition, poor selection and service at those stores or other factors, it is tough to survive in retail.

That’s why retailers are often at the forefront of innovation in finding better ways to attract and delight customers. The retail industry was a source of innovation for Commerce Bank (mentioned in the prior DBL post), leading to new services in the banking industry, such as being open 7 days a week and introducing other customer conveniences. While libraries are not subject to the same constraints as retail stores, they can emulate Commerce Bank by following developments in the retail industry. I recently came across several articles of interest that could yield new ideas for libraries that want to offer a better user experience.

For starters you could explore some of the trends sighted in the retail sector that reflect new ideas in attracting customers and giving them a better experience in the store. In the article “Brand New World” Martin Pedersen shares a number of trends he spotted. In major cities the pop-up trend is catching on among restaurants, but now established retailers are giving it a try. Using the cosmetics firm Aesop as an example, Pedersen shows how retailers can get beyond the same look as every other store in the mall. Consider that counters are composed of old newspapers stacked upon one another. Aesop’s president said that “People want to be stimulated visually and intellectually, and our signature stores offer an element of surprise and discovery.” As always, try to be different, and retail may provide some clues on how to do just that. Department stores are innovating by making every level a different experience, not merely two floors for women, a floor for men, another for housewares, etc. A multi-level library might feature one floor as the technology experience with hi-tech everything, while the next level might be the no distractions zone (no cell signals, no wireless, no computers). Take a look, and read more about “secret locations”, another intriguing idea.

While it’s fun to find out what’s happening on the physical side of retail, exploring the latest strategies for reaching the customer is a fine complement. Some contemporary strategies, such as expanding into China, won’t hold much promise for libraries (although reaching out into new territory within your community is always a potential growth strategy), but the post “New Retail Strategies: Offering a Better Fit for Today’s Careful Consumers” offers ideas librarians might want to consider. Wharton marketing professor Jerry Wind summed up the most important retail strategies right now: create excitement; tap into social networks; allow individuals to customize their own product;empower customers to influence the product producer. Consumer behavior is being permanently changed by online retailing. They expect to have great control over the process, from having wide selection, to competitive pricing, to getting reviews from the crowd. How do librarians offer a competing experience, or at least one that meets the basic expectations? The key strategy for the retailers is to try to stay connected to the customer as much as possible. That may explain those daily email announcements from all the online retailers with whom you’ve done business. The key strategy is to understand the customers and offer them a service operation that meets or exceeds their expectations.

If you wanted to learn how cool retail works, you’d go to an Apple Store. If you wanted to understand the thinking behind the Apple Store you’d go to the guy that made it what it is. “Retail Isn’t Broken: Stores Are” is an interview with Ron Johnson, who designed the Apple Stores, and here he provides the Harvard Business Review with an inside look at the Apple Store concept and his plans for transforming J.C. Penney department stores into a solid competitor for the consumer dollar. The big takeaway for me is Johnson’s recognition that those who serve the public need to be about more than mere transactions:

A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise. It’s got to help people enrich their lives. If the store just fulfills a specific product need, it’s not creating new types of value for the consumer. It’s transacting. Any website can do that. But if a store can help shoppers find outfits that make them feel better about themselves, for instance, or introduce them to a new device that can change the way they communicate, the store is adding value beyond simply providing merchandise. The stores that can do that will take the lead.

Replace “store” with “library” and “merchandise” with “content”, and you get a better picture of what Johnson tried to do at Apple. It’s all about creating value beyond the transaction. He says “the Apple Store succeeded not because we tweaked the traditional model. We reimagined everything.” He goes on to provide examples of how Apple Stores provide that value. There’s much more here that will inspire you to take a closer look at what Johnson is up to at J.C. Penney, and when you do you’ll see he’s a big believer in the power of building relationships, being a differentiator and and leading the customer.

Examples of good experiences and models for innovative service delivery will be found in a variety of industries, but these three articles demonstrate that librarians have much to learn from the world of retail. I’ll leave you with a suggestion to check out this slideshow to see more examples of how retailers are taking new approaches to reinvent how they connect with their customers. The rest is up to us.

Get Inspired To Innovate: Ignore What You Know

In a fairly well-known library journal I came across a column advising librarians on keeping up. There I found suggestions for how to stay on top of what’s happening in the library profession. At least that was the author’s intent. What left me disappointed was the narrowness of the scope of the suggested resources. It was mostly a collection of the same old “popular” librarian blogs. Several of those listed would hardly even help if your real intent was staying abreast of the latest developments in the profession. My other issue with this column’s advice is that it neglects to point librarians in the right direction for keeping up with content that will inspire them with creative new ideas for innovation. That’s why my advice is for librarians to always look beyond librarianship for greater inspiration. That’s where you’ll find the ideas that could be applied to library practice waiting to be discovered.

You’ll find similar advice in Bill Taylor’s blog post Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine. He reminds us that it’s important that we not let our experience – and all that we know about our industry and what we read about it – limit our capacity to come up with new ways of looking at things. He says we need to have “vuja de” :

The most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu Looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?

He uses Commerce Bank as his primary example. You can read more of the specifics in his column, but what captured my attention is that Commerce refused to benchmark itself against other banks. Think about how often we do this in our libraries. We look to see what the other libraries are doing. We develop “comparison” lists so we know which libraries we need to follow. True, it’s a good idea to occasionally ask colleagues in similar libraries how they handle a specific problem (e.g., I recently asked for advice on a particular policy issue), but just following what other libraries do, according to Taylor, is unlikely to lead to any significant innovation in your library.

Commerce’s leaders ignored what other banks did, especially when the talk turned to “best practices”. Instead it looked at totally different industries. So instead of studying Citibank and BankAmerica, they followed what was happening at Target, Starbucks and Best Buy. Taylor concludes by reminding us:

You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organizations in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them — and how you can apply their ideas to your problems.

By all means, follow the library literature that helps you to become a better librarian, and that keeps you alert to what’s happening in the world of librarianship. That’s a path to continuing professional development that will help you to keep growing and improving your professional practice. But don’t stop there. When it comes to keeping up, go beyond those traditional library magazines and blogs. Don’t place those limits on your powers of creativity and innovation. If you need some suggestions for resources beyond the library literature, you’ll find some at my Keeping Up Website. In the new year, choose to be more intentional about ignoring what you know in order to discover new ways to design a better library experience for your community members.