From Around the Store to Around the World: The CX Journey
After living in China for seven years working first for a toys and games export business and then co-founding a chain of restaurants in Beijing, David Soffer returned to the States in 2014, to Seattle. In an experience of reverse culture shock, he found his shopping excursions unsatisfying, disappointed by the lack of customized clothing opportunities. “I thought about going back to China once a year to buy clothes,” he explained. It was cheaper to do that than to have customized clothing made in the United States, he said, plus it came with a built-in travel opportunity.
That’s when a light went on, and Soffer’s entrepreneurial spirit rose to the fore. He already had relationships with tailors in China, and he spoke Mandarin fluently. Why not bring adventure-seekers with him for the travel and the custom-created apparel? He successfully piloted the concept last spring, and earlier this fall officially launched his new business concept, Tailor Made. In spring of 2018, he’ll bring groups of people to China on three separate trips.
Shopping tourism, as it’s known, is an extreme example of the brass ring of retail today: achieving a fantastic customer experience (CX). I was thinking about this as I participated in a yoga class just a couple weeks ago with one of my yoga instructors (shout out to Yoga Masala’s Haley Duggan!) at the newly opened Athleta store here in Columbia, S.C.
We talk about CX all the time, and the importance of the human element in creating it. Indeed, this issue’s annual Digital Store Report emphasizes the importance of creating a fun, pleasant and seamless experience, across channels, that also fosters an intimate connection with your customer.
We talk about it, but often when I go out into the real world I’m still met with traditional retail struggles: long lines at POS, uninformed sales associates, messy and incommodious dressing rooms, lack of product and an inability to search for or receive it from another store, and layouts that do not match the way I want to shop.
And then I went to Athleta. The store is light-filled, the aesthetics are appealing, the product is lovely, and merchandised according to lifestyle (Best for on the Go, Best for Explore, Best for Train, Best for Restore, Best for Studio) instead of category. After class, as I started to browse, I suddenly noticed an absence of POS — although there is a large community table at store center for activities and education. That’s because the store is Athleta’s first in the country that is entirely mobile — as I learned from assistant manager Lara Cox. Checkout is wherever the customer is.
Athleta is walking the talk when it comes to better-trained, more-educated sales associates armed with the data they need to enhance the shopping experience. On her mobile device, Cox has a view into all inventory, across stores and in the warehouse. Also at her fingertips, Gap Inc.’s proprietary clienteling application, which, if I were a previous customer, would have shown her my previous purchases, preferences, birthday and other helpful bits to aid in guiding me to just the right items. I tried on yoga pants, which were too long but otherwise a good fit, and was offered free-of-charge one-day hemming services. Alternatively, the in-store kiosk serves up an endless aisle of petites (and talls) not available in-store. “We’re all about omnichannel,” Cox informed me. “If brick-and-mortar is going to succeed we need to be able to handle everything in the store.”
She told me about the capsule collections that come and go quickly within seasons, in-store classes and other local events Athleta participates in outside of the store, its credit card-based loyalty program, ship-from-store, and how Athleta products use “highly sustainable, low-dye, low-water-usage” fabrics. She’s passionate about Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, which focuses on helping the women who make its apparel to gain the skills and confidence they need to advance in work and in life.
Cox is 28. She reminds me of this year’s crop of young Top Under 30 Elite winners, also profiled in this issue, who talk customer experience like it’s their native tongue. They understand that its components are comprised of a wide range of inputs, from nourishing sustainable supply chains and products and giving consumers insight into them to delivering innovative fashion and smooth shopping.
Sometimes it seems that reality is far behind theory, but that experience at Athleta left me feeling hopeful about the future of retail, and the benefits its can bring to people and communities around the globe.
Jordan K. Speer is Editor in Chief of Apparel.