CSA Exclusive: Remarkable customer experience leads to retail success

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Steve Dennis
Steve Dennis

A leading retail influencer advises retailers to connect with their customers in memorable and personal ways.

Chain Store Age recently had a conversation with Steve Dennis, president of SageBerry Consulting, about how retailers can create competitive differentiation in the current consumer-driven retail landscape. During a 30-year career as an executive at Neiman-Marcus and Sears, and more recently as a strategic advisor, Dennis has worked with dozens of retail and consumer brands and delivered keynote addresses on six continents. 

His new book, “Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Digital Disruption,” explains the forces disrupting retail today and how retailers can design strategies to ensure they are both customer-relevant and truly remarkable.

How can a brick-and-mortar retailer succeed in the modern omnichannel environment?
“The first thing is to not get hung up in channel-centric thinking. The distinction between brick & mortar and e-commerce is increasingly one without much of difference. Shopping is increasingly a blur where digital drives physical and vice versa. The customer is the channel.

“The second thing is to think of stores as an asset not a liability. For years too many retailers stayed stuck in their silo-ed thinking and bought into the mostly false narrative of the retail apocalypse. Unable to grow the top-line they spend too much time chasing e-commerce as a distinct opportunity and under-invested in brick & mortar and it was it takes to serve the blended channel customer. Stores need to be different but with a remarkable value proposition they are far from dead.

“Third, stop thinking about omnichannel and start thinking about harmonized. With most customer journeys that result in a physical store sale—and many in-store experiences being enabled by digital technology, it isn’t about being everywhere, it’s about showing up in the moments that matter in remarkable ways. That means dissecting the customer journey to root out friction points and, more importantly, finding ways to “amplify the wow.” 

 When products, low prices, consumer access, and information are no longer scarce, what should a retailer do to stand out? 
“Even ‘very good’ is no longer good enough to command the customer’s attention in an ever-noisier world and when customers can have just about anything they want from just about anywhere in the world, just about anytime they want it.

“To win, grow and keep customers, we must create memorable experiences that are unique, intensely customer relevant, authentic to our brand and, most critically, create deep customer resonance and an emotional connection that demands that the customer share the story of our brand with others—to, quite literally, be remarkable.

“There is no one size fits all prescription for every retailer. Unearthing the levers to remarkable requires a deep understanding of our target consumers and what will be remarkable for them that can be made profitable and proprietary to our brand. We must also accept that a slightly better version of mediocre will not enough to command the consumer’s attention, much less earn the sale and to build a trusted relationship.”

Mid-level retailers positioned between discount and premier are often struggling. How can they better stand out to consumers?
“The unremarkable middle has been shrinking for years—now it is collapsing. With rare exception, most of the store closings and bankruptcies are centered here and the COVID-19 crisis will only accelerate this. With more consolidation very few opportunities exist anymore to sell average stuff to the masses. 

“The answer for just about everyone is to aggressively find a road out of the middle, recognizing that it will be pretty difficult, if not impossible to out-Amazon Amazon or out-Walmart Walmart. 

“Too many retailers have been stuck in the middle for years, essentially watching the last 20 years happen to them and thinking that they can either cost cut and store close their way to prosperity or make only incremental improvements.”

Amazon is disrupting the traditional retailer-consumer relationship. What can retailers do to stay competitive?
“Well, the most obvious thing is to be so remarkable that the balance of power is not strongly in Amazon’s favor. The other is to not fall into the trap that you can possibly beat Amazon at its own game. 

“Amazon has enormous cost and capability advantages that are impossible for virtually any retailer on the planet to match. Trying to take them head-on is likely starting a race to the bottom. As I quote Seth Godin in my book, ‘the problem with the race to the bottom is you might win, or worse, finish second.’

“The key is to achieve parity where you have to, but largely forge your own remarkable path.”

If you had to sum up “remarkable retail” in a paragraph or two, how would you define it?
“Part 1 is entitled ‘Shift Happens,’ and it lays out the seismic shifts in consumer behavior and digital disruption of the past two decades, what they mean and what we should most intently focus upon. I make the case why even very good is not good enough anymore and why we must choose to be remarkable.

“I call Part 2 ‘The Journey to Remarkable,’ and I detail my “Eight Essentials of Remarkable Retail” framework for transformation. I devote a chapter to each explaining what they are, why they are important and how retailers can put them into practice. I wrap up Part 2 with a call to action and recommendations on how to best commit to navigate our brave new world.”