Growing up in a small town in the Connecticut River Valley, I was lucky enough to work in what I believe was one of the last true General stores of our time (trust me, not the one listed above!).  The era was the late 1980’s, where technology was emerging, cell phones came in bags and where big box retail was starting to take over the world. 

However, in this little town nestled along the Connecticut River with acres upon acres of tobacco farms, Mark Drug was our General Store and I had the pleasure of working there during my high school years. 

This establishment sat in the center of town and was almost like the pseudo town hall.  The Pharmacist knew everyone by name and the front counter staff (that was me) was required to learn what customers liked.  Papers, scratch tickets, candy, cigarettes, etc.  We were trained to build relationships with everyone who walked through the door, greet them and make sure they returned.  Sound familiar?

At the time, being a teenager, I was like “WHATEVER.”  But now looking back at it, life truly does come full-circle.  In today’s retail environment, chains are trying to rekindle this General Store mentality with varying degrees of success.  And to be honest, it is a bit more complicated in today’s technology-fueled environment.  But rest assured, it can be done and I can guarantee you will be rewarded if you do it correctly.  Below are a few guiding principles you should follow to help bring your retail organization back to the future.

Leverage Your Data – Need I say more?  In this world of “BIG DATA” you have more access than ever to gain insights into who your customers are, what they purchase and what compels them to take action.  This will ultimately lead you to a customer focused marketing model and help you rekindle that General Store feeling.  Understanding and organizing your data is a completely separate topic that we have addressed and will continue to address.  But the main take-away here is not just leveraging your data – but also gathering all of your data into one bucket.  This includes in-store, online, mobile, email, call center etc.  I think you get the point.  Reality is, this is not different than the notes I used to write on the back of a cigarette carton that Mr. Smith picked up every Sunday Morning before the 7:30 mass. He liked the New York Times, Pall Mall Cigarettes, two $1 scratch tickets, and on every special holiday, he purchased his wife a box of assorted Russell Stover Chocolates.

Build Bridges Not Walls – Internally, your marketing teams need to understand one simple fact: Customers do not distinguish between brick-and-mortar stores and online stores.  To them it is all one store!  If you are Best Buy, you are Best Buy no matter if I’m in your store, on your app or browsing your site.  I know this is easier said than done, but challenge your internal team to focus on creating a better customer experience no matter where they engage with you. This will ultimately drive revenue.  The goal here is to create a seamless customer experience and make sure, regardless of the channel, they purchase your product.

Embrace Showrooming – Ok, so “Showrooming” is the dirty little word in retail. To be honest, it has been happening for decades, but technology has made it a lot easier.  The reality is that people are going to utilize their mobile devices to gather product information, read reviews and yes… price match.  In fact a recent study by VIBES Media revealed that 29% of shoppers that used a retailer to "showroom" ended up buying from that store’s own website.

The key here is seizing the opportunity. Customers are showrooming and you need to make sure you provide them a superior mobile experience that helps consumers make the right product decision.  This experience should include content that is designed from the shopper’s point of view, price matching, product reviews, alternate recommendations for out-of-stock or poorly reviewed items, tie-ins to loyalty programs and ability to buy.  Additionally you need to train your sales staff to identify these mobile-happy users and proactively approach them with offers and information to help close the sale. 

Unfortunately, the costs of goods have drastically changed since the days of the general store, but the opportunity for customer engagement has not.  As marketers, we are in an age of technology where we can embrace our customers and treat them like friends. 

Imagine this… you walk into your favorite store, and because your mobile device is location-enabled for this retailer, you receive a text that contains a mobile coupon for an item that the retailer knows (based on your shopping history) you would be interested in.  When in the store, you do some product research, read reviews and price compare utilizing the retailer’s app, and you have a truly integrated shopping experience.  During check out, you purchase the product you were looking for, along with a few items that were recommended to you while utilizing the app.  The entire purchase was then discounted because you used the discount coupon you received when you walked in.  Increased basket spend, integrated experience and engaged customer – Welcome to the new General Store.