Brian Walker

My target audience is anyone who finds the world interesting and human behaviour fascinating, terrible, inspiring, funny, and occasionally, mysterious.

– Amy Bloom

How do great and “fit” business models grow their offer in this and the future marketplace? The retail ecosystem where the physical format reasserts itself as the embodiment of the brand?

One developing area is to reconsider the emphasis on physical floor space to offer something that has traction well past the product on racks and provides a more human interactive space.

Our instinct at a fundamental, psychological level (with some exceptions) is to be social. We seek interaction and engagement with other humans in all things. Great “fit” retailers understand this and are thinking about how to leverage their “expert” position to inspire, educate, inform and guide their customers in an engaging experience in-store.

Ultimately, it’s about building a growing community that “sticks” for the customer – and gaining a tribe of loyalists in return.

This can be seen in the physical space some retailers are creating in shops for product testing, tasting, education, tutorials and immersion in an experience: from Lululemon’s evening yoga classes to Essential Ingredient’s cooking classes to woodworking retailer Carbatec’s workshops for making products such as tables and spoons.

For these retailers, product and price competition is lessened substantially by creating a real reason to visit. Consumption of the product extends to consumption of the experience.

But it also raises an important question for retailers. Are you better off having 300sqm of stock on shelves at say $4000 per sqm or 250sqm at $4500 with 50sqm dedicated to teaching and inspiring customers with your products and building a community of social media advocates and returning customers?

There are many examples globally of this trend. One that I’m choosing to highlight is Lee Valley, a 40-year-old Canadian retailer in the woodworking sector and a finalist in our 2019 Global Retail Awards.

Lee Valley sells both online and through its 20 retail locations across Canada. Its product is rooted in woodworking and gardening, but it has expanded its offering to include hardware, home and gift products. Through its growth, Lee Valley realised that the knowledge and information it provides customers was just as important — if not more important — than the products.

This set the retailer on a course of creating customer engagement opportunities across its retail network, including in-store events, seminars and drop-ins, online woodworking and gardening newsletters, as well as digital outreach through social media. Each Lee Valley store is outfitted with its own seminar room to host new and existing customers. It also provides ongoing demonstrations and engagement opportunities on the showroom floor.

Through these seminars and workshops, customers can find out how to use the tools they have bought or just learn about shortcuts and new skills in their area of interest. These can include everything from woodworking and bookbinding to gardening and DIY.

For customers who can’t make it to a workshop, Lee Valley provides monthly woodworking and gardening newsletters that share techniques, tips and tricks for learning. Many of the articles feature projects from Lee Valley employees, which further emphasise the company’s expertise. Lee Valley is committed to skill building and sharing the joy of creation—this makes it a trusted source for information and knowledge, giving customers the confidence to try.

For this business, a spade is not just a spade, it’s an opportunity to teach customers about the pleasures of gardening. What better way to grow your expert positioning, provide some quarantine from constant price and product pressures, built great and proven customer loyalty and bring your brand story to life?

Innovation starts with asking “what if”; persistence starts with a vision; adaptation starts with asking “why not”.


First published in InsideRetail on 15 March 2019.