To Survive, Big Retailers Need To Think Small With Stores

As the head of both a public relations firm and a store, Denise Williamson understands the intersection between strong communications and in-store experience. As the CEO and Co-Founder of 180 – The Store and Williamson PR, Denise has become an expert in leveraging stories, events, and promotions to get people excited about her store and the designers that are featured there.

Nearly two years later, as physical retail struggles to create engagement with customers, the communication side of brick and mortar seems intricately linked with its ability to succeed. In this, the second of a two-part interview with Denise, we discuss how 180 – The Store may provide a model for how retailers can use space, and in-store events, to get customers through the door and connecting with the designers, brands, and products that are sold inside. (Check out the podcast above, or read the edited transcript, which follows, below.)

David Zweifler, Gordon Magazine (DZ): You’ve been at this a couple of years now. What could you teach retailers about how to better engage with their customers, and what are some lessons that you wish you had known going in?

Denise Williamson, 180 The Store (DW): Yeah it’s funny when I started I was like “Yeah I’ll open an events space and do some retail,” and then it just kind of evolved and became, “oh my gosh there’s a lot to learn about retail.” And I have to say I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the past few years. One of the things that are the most important thing is always to engage with your customers, to be able to have that ability, to have that communication.

Training For Store Workers Is Key

Sometimes that’s challenging for larger retailers because there are so many different levels. If you think about a big retail establishment they get hundreds of brands that are shipped in especially now a new season they’re all coming in, they get onto the retail floor. Hopefully, there’s great training so that they’re able to speak to that to the customer because that makes and breaks the business for the designer, doesn’t it? So again it’s a cycle of communication that is so essential that has to happen.

DZ: Are you seeing any new tactics or trends in retail that other retailers might benefit from?

DW: It really depends on what the retailer’s DNA is. For us, I think what’s really it has worked is figuring out all the different things that we can bring to the community and being able to expose them to, like shibori dyeing, or a master tea maker that comes in, or a DJ in launching new music or art installations… things like that speak to different people so that they come in for you know this is a community.

This is a neighborhood store so it’s about being able to connect with other people within the community – being involved with the schools, being involved with the hotels, and finding ways to give back in other ways – that is super important. I’m always looking for different and creative ideas that we can bring to the forefront here at 180.

DZ: It sounds like a lot of that inspiration is coming from clients, but also driven by a desire to serve the people in the neighborhood.

Connecting The Store To The Neighborhood

DW: I think it’s important for any brick-and-mortar. I think it’s important for any retail establishment no matter what you are you — that’s why there are brick and mortars because people want a place to go. They want a place to congregate. They want a place to experience you know to hang out. That is what brick-and-mortar is about to be able to touch and feel and experience and I don’t think that will ever go away. I think that it’s just evolving in different ways.

DZ: So it sounds like 180 has a real emphasis on innovation, trying new things focusing on the local customers…

DW: Not just local. We also get a lot of people worldwide that have read about us or come here from Asia from Europe. Even from uptown New York (laughter)…

DZ: So the location becomes the destination aside from the products yeah cool. Still, those tactics sound like something that a small boutique can do it probably is a lot harder for a large retailer. I don’t know if Barnes & Noble could decide that they were going to have a tea master come into all of their locations. Do you see large retailers as being at a disadvantage? Could they be innovating at the local store level the same way that you guys are?

I think it’s important for any brick-and-mortar. I think it’s important for any retail establishment no matter what you are you — that’s why there are brick and mortars because people want a place to go. They want a place to congregate. They want a place to experience you know to hang out. That is what brick-and-mortar is about to be able to touch and feel and experience and I don’t think that will ever go away.”

DW: Absolutely! Why not? Why not – really? Maybe not at all their locations but they still can do it. They could be innovating at the local store level the same way. I don’t see why they can’t. I think like one store that I go into in Japan, Isakan, they do a lot of promoting, and introductions of different designers, installations, stuff like that. They are a huge establishment. I think that’s what keeps things interesting. I don’t think there should be any constraints like that. I guess it’s just political within the company. But I don’t feel that there there’s a reason why they can’t do it.

DZ: You do a lot of travel for your work. How do you feel like US retail stacks up?

High Rents Make Store Innovation Hard

DW: The beauty of Paris… there’s a gorgeous flute shop in the bar in the Marais that has been making flutes for how many generations or years — they’re still there. You’re able to have that kind of interesting shopping environment where you can explore and find new things. In the US, and I can only really speak to LA and New York, but the rent just takes a lot doesn’t it? Just look at what happened to Soho when they all got pushed out because the rents got so high. It lost the restaurants and lost the interesting boutiques that were there, and it became a home to more mainstream designers, who were the only ones that could support that overhead. So I think that that’s what a lot of the smaller retail shops are subjected to.

DZ: We were joking yesterday about the primacy or the lack thereof in New York City as a retail destination (because of high rents). It sounds to me like it when the rents get to beyond a certain point, it kind of squelches innovation in retail because stores can’t afford to have an experiment that doesn’t succeed.

“(T)here’s a gorgeous flute shop in the bar in the Marais that has been making flutes for how many generations or years — they’re still there. You’re able to have that kind of interesting shopping environment where you can explore and find new things. In the US, and I can only really speak to LA and New York, but the rent just takes a lot doesn’t it? Just look at what happened to Soho when they all got pushed out because the rents got so high. It lost the restaurants and lost the interesting boutiques that were there, and it became a home to more mainstream designers, who were the only ones that could support that overhead.”

DW: Right… right. I think the other thing that we as a community and residents need to get together and really change is the way everything is being marked down. I think that’s killing small businesses … everybody’s jumping to markdown sooner and it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t happen in Europe and … it’s training the public here to always wait for the sale, wait for the markdown, and wait for the best deal possible. That’s a dangerous thing that’s happened because it has killed the retail environment and smaller retailers that just can’t compete.

DZ: it’s funny I was talking to a retail consultant up in Toronto, Bill Winder, yesterday for this podcast about that very point: There seems to be an immutable law of human nature that like if you give people a choice between an excellent product at a fair price or a piece of crap that’s really cheap or nearly free people almost invariably take the piece of crap for low commitment items – meaning for things that are perceived as commodity items. A lot of people feel like price competition is a race to the bottom and destroys retailers of all sizes because it trains consumers to send all the business to the lowest-cost provider, which at this point is usually Amazon. But on the other hand, I feel like retailers have kind of ceded their responsibility to create commitment the way that you have at 180. Consumers don’t take the low-price at all costs approach with stuff that they really care about. If you can explain why a coffee machine is much much better to someone who likes coffee but isn’t coffee aficionado, but like really likes coffee they might build that commitment and say, “Hey, I could probably find this online cheaper right now but these guys have a price match they gave me an excellent piece of service and I want to have a relationship with this institution, especially because I might need other coffee stuff in the future.” I think a lot of retailers have just all been focused on price and so they’ve like ceded the ability to build those deep relationships, and so now that there’s a lower-cost provider that’s not even in the brick and mortar space they are in big trouble.

Good Stores Create A Value Connection

DW: But I also think that people perceive value in different ways. I think that people some people want to have less is better but things that are makes them feel good in their home on their body to where that really resonates with kind of their aesthetic and what they are and really appreciate the time and the efforts — we have a glassblower that’s here in the store right now and he’s amazing… the customer can really resonate with the products and appreciate them and want them in the home because they just look at it every day when they wake up and they see it when they perceive the value in that way. People have to understand the value of things and the way things are made and that’s I think what we tell here is about the glassblower about the photographer or the mud dyeing that’s happening in a garment from Japan and indigo dyeing process and everything else that’s happening (at 180). They’re also not going to find a thousand of them around. It’s a limited edition they’re a limited amount so not everybody’s going to be walking around in that thing. I think that’s also perceived value for some people too.

DZ: There are lots of different ways that you can build the perception of value around the product around the store, including limited editions and including a commitment to the community and creating a place where people want to go…

“We..need to get together and really change is the way everything is being marked down. I think that’s killing small businesses … everybody’s jumping to markdown sooner and it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t happen in Europe and …  it’s training the public here to always wait for the sale, wait for the markdown, and wait for the best deal possible. That’s a dangerous thing that’s happened because it has killed the retail environment and smaller retailers that just can’t compete.”

 Denise Williamson understands the intersection between strong communications and in-store experience. As the CEO and Co-Founder of 180 – The Store and Williamson PR, Denise has become an expert in leveraging stories, events, and promotions to get people excited about her store and the designers that are featured there.DW: It’s also supporting people… supporting these designers and being able to keep that back going, as well as being able to have a platform for them to be able to explain that value. It’s so important to support these designers that have created such unique brands or collections.

DZ: It sounds like you’ve hit on a bunch of heuristics on how you get customers to care about the location and the value that they get from it that they are willing to forgo a lower cost and lower quality purchase that they could make online, and that’s kind of the whole ballgame. It sounds like you’re doing it well. Thanks for joining us today.

This was the second of two interviews with Denise Williamson. If you missed the first you’ll want to check it out – she discusses how stories shape her retail business and ways that she connects with the community of buyers both locally and globally to make her store a destination. Click the link to learn more.

David Zweifler

David is the founder of Gordon Magazine. David's experience spans investment banking, journalism, marketing and technology.

David Zweifler