Some retailers resonate so well with multiple generations of shoppers that they can appeal to grandmas and at the same time have musicals made in the their honour by high school performing arts groups.
Other retailers can be successful with one generation but connect so poorly with the next that they are sliding into irrelevance. What’s the secret to being in the first group and not the second? The fate of all retailers ultimately hangs on the answer, including Australia’s department stores, discount department stores and scores of brands that were important to Gen X and baby boomers.
One of the commonalities that consumer experts believe they know about Millenials is that they are readier than any prior consumer group to reward and reject companies on the basis of their social and environmental values.
And you can’t just cook up a corporate marketing spiel about your solid values, insert it in your marketing collateral and then forget about it. You need to mean it and you need to deliver on it. False pretence will be punished harder than anything.
Wegmans, a family-owned supermarket chain with about 80 stores in the northeastern US generating more than $6 billion in annual sales, may be among the best examples of how companies can prosper if they “get” this.
Few retail chains in history can boast such a multi-generational cult following. Alec Baldwin told David Letterman on the Late Show that his mum refused to move from Rochester, New York, to another city because the new city didn’t have a Wegmans. And when the newest Wegmans store opened in Columbia, Maryland, on a recent Sunday, more than 2,000 people were waiting in line to get in by opening time at 7am. Three women in their fifties near the front of the queue were attending their sixth Wegmans opening.
At the same time the supermarket chain is so hip among Millenials that a high school drama group in Massachusetts has produced a musical celebrating the company. It's called "Wegmans. . .The Musical."
Wegmans employs 42,000 people and has never had layoffs. All profits are reinvested or shared with employees. But getting hired there is a highly competitive process because so many people want to work there and staff screening is exhaustive. So is after-hire training. For example, cashiers have 40 hours of compulsory training before they are permitted to have any contact with customers.
Part of Wegmans’ appeal to the emerging generation of shoppers is that it delivers on a corporate philosophy which, in its simplest terms, says a company can only be truly customer-focused if it is genuinely employee-focused. Employees drive the brand by driving the customer experience. They will only be willing and able to do that if they are happy and well-trained.
Many retailers do not understand this, confusing service with the hiring of a few or a few hundred more warm bodies. This is a recipe for declining relevance.
The failure to remain relevant with a new generation is referred to as the "Oldsmobile effect." It was named for the once hugely successful but ultimately ill-fated American motor car, which went out of production in 2004 after more than a century. The phrase means that the children of people who drive Oldsmobiles do not want to drive Oldsmobiles. More broadly, it means that each generation liberates itself from the last by buying different brands, shopping at different retailers, preferring different shopping formats and practicing different shopping habits.
As a result, retailers that were successful with one generation face a battle for relevance with the next.
In Australia, the Oldsmobile effect is evidenced by lackluster sales growth, store closures and slow technology adoption among mainstream retailers. E-commerce pure plays and international fast fashion brands entering the Australian market arouse excitement in the social media forums; the staples of Australian shopping centres do not. When Costco announces a new store opening or even a site acquisition it creates a buzz; a new Coles or Woolworths opening doesn’t register.
Operators like Wegmans do not exist yet in Big Retail in Australia. However, as retailers increasingly wonder how they will connect with the next generation, the Wegmans model is worth studying.
Who knows, one day we might see “Woolworths. . .The Movie” on Youtube.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.