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GUEST COMMENT Twixt the devil and the deep blue SoCal sea

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by Trevor Harvey

We often talk about the need for creating experiences in-store, rather than simply selling products, but sometimes these two necessities are at odds with each other and both are important in the battle for shoppers’ cash. There are times where a retail brand needs to create a presence that attracts one set of shoppers, while not excluding the other set from their purchase ability.

Hollister is a case in point. I really like their clothing – the quality, the fit and the styling suits me. Except that I’m 43 and their target audience’s average age is around late teens. That means they definitely don’t want me in their store (I am, after all, the equivalent of an ‘old fart’ and that doesn’t rock with their image of SoCal surfer-cool teens). But they do want my money, as I’m a repeat shopper and have, as an older person, more disposable income. So where does that leave the store?

Mike Jeffries, the CEO of A&F, Hollister’s parent company, remarked in his now infamous 2006 interview with Salon when asked about the emotional experience he creates in his stores: “…good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” He went on to say that he’d rather exclude people than try to target everyone, becoming a vanilla brand. For that he’s been vilified as exclusionary, body-fascist and sizeist, whereas he actually has a point.

The Hollister stores are designed to appeal to the teen audience; created to look from the outside like a SoCal beach house and on the inside like the idealised living space of a surfer-teen, with darkened rooms, clothes strewn and stacked high, with a liberal use of scent. The in-store experience is intended to make those teens feel at home. And to make me feel uncomfortable, with its claustrophobic space, too-dark-to-see-properly, too-loud physical constraints. Effectively keeping me out of their store by single-mindedly appealing to their core consumer. Exclusionary by design.

On the other hand, they’ve clearly recognised that their potential shopper base is much broader than that. So their website, for all online sales, is remarkably un-teenlike. It’s not the latest in online technological experiences, nor is it about the ‘experience’ of shopping; it’s about the simple offering of good product, simply exhibited, with a simple purchase mechanism. This is more my natural shopping arena where I can pick out the products I want from the brand I want and get them delivered to me without needing to navigate the unnatural-to-me in-store experience. Inclusionary by design.

The online experience here differs so much from the in-store experience that you might be tempted to think they were disconnected. In reality, however, the look and language is the same: ‘Dudes’, ‘Bettys’, the ‘SoCal look’ and the ‘HCO life’; the dark colours and beach-freshness of the models. The clothes are presented in exactly the same straightforward way that they are in-store, without artifice but with the best bodies showing them off. The web experience also connects straight through to the store shopper audience, joining their conversation places on Instagram and Pinterest in addition to the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter presences. And if you really miss the link to the store, there are the same tracks streaming on the site as there are in the store. All of which creates a synergy with the brand but in a way that you don’t need to engage with if you simply want great product.

The smartness of this brand’s omnichannel understanding of its various connection points with shoppers is made clearer when you look at the online experiences of its shopper audience’s other options: H&M and TopMan. These sites feel cluttered with navigation choices and splattered with product options. They’re less about getting you to the product easily and simply, and more about inspiring a look. Less simply displayed, they seem to be trying to ape their in-store experiences of a rummage-room.

There’s an important lesson for brands when dealing with Millennial audiences: make the experience feel part of the whole experience but don’t think you have to copy and paste one part into a different channel. They behave differently in-store than they do online, so fit to their natural rhythms rather than forcing them to follow your channel strategy. And Jeffries might just be right: don’t try and target to everyone; identify who you’d like in-store and attract them; identify who you’d like to buy your brand’s products and attract them using a different channel; and don’t be ashamed to say that your brand’s not for everyone. After all, no one complains that Ferraris are too expensive for university students and should therefore be made cheaper!

The trick is to create the right in-store experience for your target audience but then, in the omnichannel world in which we live and shop, to create the right purchase experience, recognising that these may be different. In the connected world, not every brand execution has to be the same. And a brand can be both exclusionary and inclusionary simultaneously.

Trevor Harvey is director of planning at Saatchi and Saatchi X

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