Retail Upheaval in the Kingdom of Brick and Mortar

[row] [column size=’1/2′] Imaneuvered awkwardly about locked in the tight, chipped wooden box. Coiled and twisting in the layers of fabric that bound me under harsh fluorescent lights, I quietly pondered the fate of so many others who had been here before me.

I waited, my gaze focused on the paint that had been “touched up” hundreds of times over. The scratched door tacky with layers of whitewash and the walls around me welted with dents. Tentatively, I called out for help. Yet once again my pleas fell upon deaf ears. The minutes slowly ticked by. I grew agitated as the soothing background music meant to sway and relax me, only grated.

 As I waited, sequestered and vulnerable in only my undergarments, I called out once more. Then it dawned upon me that no one was coming. 

You would be forgiven to think this was some kind of grim kidnapping or hostage scenario from a movie, akin to the harrowing Midnight Express or Buried. But it was just me in the dressing room of Myer, one of Australia’s behemoth “upscale” department stores on a Sunday afternoon. [/column] [column size=’1/2′]

It is a scene familiar in many stores nowadays, hung in the balance of bean counters and buyers as online shopping continues to dominate the retail landscape.

In Canada, we have recently lost three long-established fashion retailers in a scant few months: Jacob, Mexx, Smart Set, and the once iconic Le Château is also allegedly down for the count. Not to mention homewares stores Target, Sony, Bowring, and Bombay have folded in the last year too.

The reasons are manifold—far beyond what I could ever cover in a blog post. But here’s the rub: Few people were surprised to see any of them go. Their wares were basic, cheaply made, un-imaginative and utterly indistinguishable from one another.

As someone with who still enjoys the immediate gratification of shopping—the analog way—a few thoughts come to mind on the subject. After all, a woman who tries on an item of clothing is four times more likely to purchase, statistics say. 

The in-store shopping war isn’t over just yet, but oy vey, does it ever need an overhaul.[/column]


Overhauling the Brick-and-Mortar Retail Experience

1. Less supermodels. More service.

[row] [column size=’1/2′] When the dressing rooms are crumbling, the merchandising is sterile and the customer service is lethargic, it’s really hard to wrap oneself around why, a singular individual commands the lion’s share of the sales and marketing budget—if any at all. Myer eventually bargained down the $5 million dollar fee to $3.5 million for their latest “Ambassador” campaign citing economic downturn. Maybe it’s my Gen X sensibilities, but a famous face doesn’t add any value for me as a consumer. It’s the uniqueness of stock, ambience, and service that win hands-down every time.

And times have changed. So save the money on glossy flyers (along with the high-flyers that adorn the pages), and allocate funds toward making locations attractive, rewarding places to shop.

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Close the gulf between substance and style. Especially, in the case of Myer, when the price tag on some of their off-brand dresses and suits are in the thousands. Yes. Thousands. All the while the dressing room has bad lighting and peeling paint. Does anyone else see the hypocrisy?

Anthropologie, for example, does an amazing job of this sort of merchandising—online and off. It’s warm, inviting and intimately merchandised. Victoria’s Secret has doorbells to summons assistance to their flatteringly lit dressing rooms. That’s brilliant. So start with the basics. Spend your budget on servicing the women who do shop there.

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2. Focus on a niche and stick to it.

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Le Chateau windows at Eaton Center, Toronto – Canada. Image via Design Retail Blog. Photo: James Doiron
Le Chateau windows at Eaton Center, Canada. Image via Design Retail Blog. Photo: James Doiron
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Oh, Le Château—where did you go?

Le Château, for the uninitiated, was once the premier destination for edgy fashion in the 1990s in Canada. Its roots run deep; established in Montreal in 1959 the band clothed John Lennon and Yoko Ono for their press op after the famous bed-in 1969, setting a trend of matching couple’s velour tracksuits, for better or worse.

Once staffed by only the most supremely fashion forward, the store was the go-to for the young creative class, denizens of the club/music scene, and other artsy-edgy types. Until one day they all drifted away.

I don’t recall exactly when things changed. There I was, buying spray-on silver PVC pants and then in the next breath, reluctantly selecting a muted, calf-length grey skirt—to wear to a funeral, ironically—all the while wondering why I was buying it from Le Château.

Kind of poetic, when you think about it. It was 2004, and it was just about the last time I bought anything there.

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See, sometime in the early ‘aughts, someone at Le Château decided that the target consumer demographic had grown up and “taken office jobs,” and so they went headlong the direction of drab. Stocking rayon corporate wear of questionable quality, indistinguishable from so many other stores, plus a perplexing selection of suburbanite, pastel sateen prom dresses not seen since Jessica McClintock dresses were popular.

I strongly question the methodology that consumers who grew up with the brand all went into jobs requiring a staid, corporate uniform. And why Le Château didn’t continue to market to the younger generation. Instead Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Aritzia, Zara, and Anthropologie swooped in and scooped up their old customer base and the new blood too.

Yet, I still see opportunity here. So many of my girlfriends bemoan the lack of really artsy, Avant Garde, pret-a-porter for work, as do I. Minimalist, glam cuts in lux materials that you don’t feel stuffy-looking in. Forget the fiddly little zippers, the cheap stretchy fabrics with pinstripes or pointless swirly prints, blouses with tiny buttons, and other flimsy flourishes. We’re looking for bold, not grey and old.Please don’t deviate from what your niche audience has come to expect.

3. What service isn’t.

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Hi! Did you know that we have sweaters and jeans buy one free and you get 15% off the second item? We also have blahblahblahblahblah two-for-one today and if you sign up for our [useless] rewards card today you’ll get twenty percent in points back on your first purchase? Oh dear.

 Am I the only one who winces when sales staff begin a verbal onslaught, dreamed up by some consultant who has deemed this the way to ensnare shoppers? 

I feel genuinely sorry for these folks forced to robotically repeat their mantra hundreds of times, week in, week out.

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Sometimes, I’ve interrupted people mid-spiel, hands up in surrender, to sympathetically and gently inform them, “It’s okay, you don’t have to go on—I’m just looking.” (I won’t get started on the perils of orbiting too close to a cosmetics counter—I leave that for the busiest of Saturday afternoons where I can be blissfully ignored in peace to scribble lipstick shades and spray perfume about with abandon.)

A warm smile, eye contact, and a friendly, effusive hello in greeting, along with genuine conversational skills is far more appealing than that harass-that-ass technique.

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So why not just shop online?

Frankly, I love the instant gratification of in-store shopping. It’s convenient, anticipatory, and potentially filled with suspense around every corner. I don’t often have three-to-five business days to gamble that what I’m looking for will arrive in time or fit. Plus, I’m prone to purchasing on pure impulse. And you can people watch; it’s semi-social.

I’d much rather spend my money in settings where people are employed with a modicum of dignity and with a purpose to their day, other than getting up each morning to head to a darkened warehouse to pack and forklift my fashion to me, if that’s indeed what the future holds. As much as is possible, I try to spend my consumer dollars strategically. So as a stakeholder in that regard, I speak up when I see things going south.

So what’s your take? Does a million dollar face influence your to open your wallet or are you over it?

Do you do most of your shopping online? Do department stores have a future in our brave new world? And where can stores do more when it comes to service, ambience and selection?

And  P.S.: Will someone please jailbreak those dress shirts from their sealed plastic bags with all the pins and cardboard fuss? I suspect men everywhere will thank you.


  1. Totally! You nailed it. I love “retail therapy”. Shopping, especially when I have a bit of money allocated to some new clothes, is so much fun. I don’t know if it’s where I live, in Los Angeles, or if it’s just that I avoid the stores that don’t have much in the way of customer service, but I usually have more of a problem finding my size than I do finding cute things and clean, nice, dressing rooms. Yet I agree with you. Less super models, more customer service!

  2. Actually, I’d say you nailed it! You won the jackpot, the motherload of shopping mecca, living in LA, Heather. That is my favourite city in the world. I lived there from 90-94 as a teenager and discovered fashion there. (My favourite store was Antexx on Hollywood Boulevard) I spent NYE in Santa Monica this year – it was glorious. Bright and early on Jan 1rst, I made a bee-line for 3rd street promenade. Wish I had more time to go to Melrose, etc.. The variety and sheer volume of places to shop in your city is mind boggling.

    It’s a different story up here in the land of lycra and fleece – or alternatively sunny Australia. The discrepancy obviously has much to do weather, volume of population in comparison too. In Oz it’s so odd to see such expensive clothes merched like a Ross Dress-For-Less, lol. And a whack of the budget spent on concocting an image around the stores that doesn’t hold up in actuality. The difference is so stark in comparison, so I guess you begin to focus on the surrounds more than usual. There isn’t really that middle ground. I think V found that too when she was over there. So thank you for the lovely comments and enjoy that sunny, amazing city of yours! 🙂

  3. There is nothing in the world that I hate more than shopping in stores. Empoyees are either rude or inattentive, and shoppers don’t know how to shop properly in order to keep an orderly flow of traffic going around the store. The only thing I will buy in a retail store is food.

    1. Mate, I feel your pain… I think some of it comes down to trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ with department stores. Packing in so much stuff that the planogram that the stores were designed to be merchandized around are forgotten – adding to the lack of “flow” in an effort to maximize every square inch of retail space. Add in disengaged employees that are, (lets face it) paid very entry level wages and it’s easy to see how people find the modern day experience as a exciting as a ten-hour layover in an airport at Xmas. Still, my batting average with online shopping has been 0 for 14. 😐 Exasperatingly nothing I’ve ever ordered has properly fit or arrived looking like the thing that was advertised, apparel-wise at least… I have my favourite stores which are mostly independent boutiques these days. 😉