One of the greatest paradoxes of our time is that the more hyper-connected our world becomes, the more isolated we grow from one another. We discuss the importance of brick-and-mortar retail and its role in preserving the lost art of human connection, with long-time-customer-turned-friend, Sarah Marsh.
Sarah Marsh is a creature of habit. She has a very routine way of traveling. Sarah explains it by recalling a recent trip to London. It was the first time she’d been back in ten years. Her long overdue return to The Big Smoke was veiled with the optimism and curiosity of a traveler exploring a new city for the first time. London was once again a blank slate inviting Sarah to sketch out a new path. With the rapid development of technology in the last decade, the Internet and mobile devices offered themselves as convenient tools for this task. Yet Sarah opted for a more traditional resource: the locals. On a spontaneous visit to a small cafe around the corner from where she was staying she sparked up a conversation with the staff who provided her with recommendations. From there she set off to explore, relying on the locals as her guiding compass.
“I travel a lot,” she tells us in between sips of coffee, “anywhere I go I always look for something unique and local.” She likens her method of traveling to a scavenger hunt. I’ll speak to someone. I’ll make a list. I’ll explore. Sarah gravitates towards smaller local businesses because it helps view her surroundings through a more intimate lens, by learning from the people who build their lives around serving their communities. The more she speaks of her discoveries of little-known neighborhood gems - the friendships she’s developed through speaking with local proprietors - the more her eyes brim with excitement. The goal of her scavenger hunt style of traveling is not to collect souvenirs. What she’s really searching for lies in the intangible; in the experience; the story; the connection. She shoots us a knowing smile before admitting, “Honestly I think your store started it for me.”
Today marks Sarah’s third visit to New York this year alone. Prior to this she’d been to London, Japan and China (twice, actually). For the California native - born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area - travel allows her to observe and understand the way people live. Fortunately, her work necessitates a high volume of travel.
Sarah is Vice President of Customer Experience and Engagement for global fashion retailer UNIQLO. Her role involves developing programs that recognize customers and create memorable shopping experiences. A trip to UNIQLO is impossible to forget. The retailer, which originated as a textiles manufacturer in Japan in 1949, places great emphasis on creating an attentive in-store experience. They're known for their impeccable Japanese style of customer service. As soon as the doors swing open an enthusiastic staff member greets you with a warm smile and a cheery rendition of the phrase “Welcome to UNIQLO!” Giant screens with product tutorials surround you as you navigate your way through bright aisles of neatly stacked sweaters, bottoms and shirts that are coordinated by color. As you browse, polite customer service staff zip around the store offering you a carry bag for your items in between folding and straightening items with an otherworldly speed and efficiency. While other fast-fashion retailers focus on producing trend items season after season, UNIQLO swear by producing everyday basics that embody the philosophy of “LifeWear,” which is about creating clothes that make life better, with unrivaled value.
“You can have fancy systems, but if people don’t care or engage then the systems aren’t going to do for you what you think it’s going to do. You have to be real.”
Their products may be simple, but their aspirations are far from it. In response to the shifting retail landscape spurred by technological advancements, UNIQLO want to establish digital leadership to stay ahead of changes. The aim is not to compromise their in-store presence, but in fact complement and enhance it. And this digital transformation is foundational as the brand, Asia’s biggest clothing retailer, sets its sights on growing into the world’s number one clothing retailer.
It may be far from the small retail religion Sarah practices but there’s no one more suited to this role than her because she understands what it means to be a customer. She still places people and connection at the core of what she does. “You can have fancy systems, but if people don’t care or engage then the systems aren’t going to do for you what you think it’s going to do. You have to be real,” she pauses before adding, “In some ways you have to be a prolific customer yourself.” Her expeditions around the world shape her understanding of how to be a good customer and a good retailer. By actively seeking out neighborhood businesses on her travels, and taking time to understand how and why local proprietors work so hard to get to know their customers on a human level, Sarah is able to bring something refreshing to her role: authenticity. “To have these kinds of experiences to connect with,” she says, “it does come back to the heart of what I happen to do.” It helps her to synthesize the online and offline customer experiences - which is more important than ever.
“My role is about reminding people that at the core we're still human beings.”
Over the last five years the popularity of online shopping has been slowly creeping up. According to a survey from comScore and a study by UPS, this year signified a turning point for the retail industry. In 2016, shoppers made 51% of their purchases online, compared to 48% in 2015 and 47% in 2014. This is the first time that online sales have eclipsed in-store numbers. The mounting pressure for retailers to adapt their business models is causing brick-and-mortar efforts to fall by the wayside.
In a time when brick-and-mortar feels almost obsolete, it’s refreshing that someone recognizes the need for it. Sarah’s adamant that to become a good retailer and to give your customers what they need there must be a balance between digital and physical. Where digital efforts become about answering consumers’ needs for convenience and control, brick-and-mortar becomes about preserving the lost art of face-to-face connection.
Figuring out how to straddle that fine line between digital and physical is a constant battle for all retailers - us included. Every time that Sarah pays us a visit, we find ourselves revisiting variations of this conversation. As we wrap up, we touch on the future and ask where she thinks technology will take us. She doesn’t know the answer to that just yet and it’s a challenge she deals with every day in her job, but it doesn’t scare her. She’s steadfast in her commitment to placing people at the heart of everything she does. “Technology has changed a lot just in the last five years. There’s a lot more that you can do, but then the fundamentals change,” she says before determinedly declaring, “My role is about reminding people that at the core we’re still human beings.”
And with that, she reminds us about why we invest so much in keeping our own brick-and-mortar presence alive. While it may be easy sometimes to lose sight of the purpose amidst the ever-changing digital landscape, it's crystal clear after this conversation. It’s important to have a space to connect with our customers on a more personal level; a space to learn from one another.
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