5. Present your customers with a reason to take a stand.
Everything until now has been mere warm-up. Giving customers a reason to believe and, ultimately, to take a stand is the true mark of a successful retailer with eyes on the sustainability of a loyal customer base.
Getting folks active -- a veritable calisthenics for consumers -- means tying your charitable and community acts to the core of your mission. It's the reason folks affected by natural disasters have become so loyal to The Home Depot: the company was there to help before, during and after the calamities and worked harder, opened longer to be there in a time of trial.
Clothing company Gap received a halo effect and new streams of traffic to its stores when it took part in the Product Red campaign (www.joinred.org) starting just three years ago. The company released a special RED collection, including a t-shirt manufactured in Lesotho from African cotton. Fifty to 100 percent of the profits went to the Global Fund; depending on the item. Gap continued with Gap Product Red items into 2007, especially in the lead up to Valentine's Day, using slogans such as "Admi(RED)" and "Desi(RED)." Product Red has now contributed more than $45 million to the Global Fund, more than any other private donation received to date.
Other companies have been trailblazers in advocating for key issues and rallying their customers to become activists in the campaign. On Earth Day, April 22, 2008, Whole Foods Market eliminated the use of disposable plastic grocery bags company-wide. Customers can now choose between paper bags made from 100 percent recycled paper or from a selection of reusable bags.
The move from the traditional paper/plastic system to environmentally friendly and reusable bags has been packaged as an initiative the company calls "BYOB "Bring Your Own Bag." The campaign is aimed at reducing pollution by eliminating plastic bags and reducing waste by encouraging bag reuse with "bag refunds" of five to 10 cents, depending on the store.
Sometimes a strong sense of purpose can rally your organization into developing a whole new product line and can provide new touch-points for offering meaning to consumers. Hallmark Journeys are new lines of cards for inspiration, hope and support beyond the traditional card-giving occasions including more than 170 encouragement cards. Journeys cards are available at Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide.
Campaigns can rally people to issues - from American Girl's current 2009 Girl of the Year Chrissa Maxwell on a mission to "stop the bullying," complete with resources, pledges and tie-ins, to The Target/Salvation Army Angel Giving Tree, which is an online version of the charity's program to help needy families with holiday presents.
Most retailers are for-profit and cannot withstand the business model that best friends Jessica Moment and Sally Fowler - both ex-Gappers - have cultivated in their San Francisco based store, The Philanthropist Boutique. There, patrons can splurge on Zac Posen dresses, Jill Stuart blouses, jewelry, handbags, even a champagne bar and mini cupcakes, with 100 percent of donations going to Bay Area charities. The charity of choice changes with each season and has included organizations such as the Raphael House, which benefits families in need by assisting them in achieving financial stability and independence. The Presidio Heights shop will stock collections from Rachel Roy, Richard Chai, Allegra Hicks, Gryphon, Loeffler Randall and Rag & Bone, to name a few.
This strong activism tradition at retail has its very roots in 'charity shops,' a type of social enterprise generally associated with second-hand goods and staffed by volunteers. OxFam and Red Cross shops started in the 1940s in London. In fact, to this day, Oxfam is the largest retailer of second-hand books in Britain. In the U.S., Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and ReStore - the store of Habitat for Humanity International - carry on this tradition as the core function of their retail outlets. Habitat ReStores, for instance, resell new and used building and household materials donated by large companies, job sites and individuals. Proceeds from ReStores help local affiliates fund the construction of Habitat houses within the community. Many affiliates across the United States and Canada operate successful ReStores - some of which raise enough funds to build an additional 10 or more houses per year.
Retailers can get involved in many online communities that kick back some of the funds to charities of the users' choice, ultimately prompting loyalty and repeat visits. This growing trend of charitable giving communities online includes uPromise.com, iGive.com, ethicalshopper.com and onecause.com, to name a few.
The importance of corporate social responsibility cannot be stressed enough. If corporate retailers do not get involved, they will be trumped by independent movements that can build faster than any of us can construct more stores.
Freecycle.org is one such fascinating movement. Its mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on landfills while enabling members to benefit from the strength of a larger community. The Freecycle network now exists in every state in the U.S. and more than 75 countries, keeping more than 400 tons of trash out of landfills each day. Items available for pickup can include anything from computers, furniture and bicycles, to phone adapters and partially eaten boxes of chocolate. If the concept of wearing someone else's clothes is not your bag, it may be better for you to give than to receive. But if you think nobody's interested in those old knickknacks or Atari joysticks, you may be surprised to find that most of the goods posted on Freecycle find a home.
You don't have to connect the dots all that much to imagine a world that could one day transform from a place where people visit businesses to buy things to a world where people simply go to each other to trade things. That's why staying engaged in innovations, finding new ways to engage your customers and looking for ways to bring meaning to transactions is so critical.
The future lies in everything you do: from your mission statement to the day-to-day operations of how you choose your products, where you opt to locate, what your product mix is and who is on the front line of customer service. Other issues are more nuanced: Are you successfully telling your story? Are you connecting with people on their terms? Are you offering an experience that brings joy and meaning? These are questions we as retailers and marketers will continue to explore as we survey and shape the changing landscape of shoppers and how and why they buy.
About the author: Stephen Michael Brown is senior vice president of the consumer practice for the Atlanta office of MS&L Worldwide, a public relations and communications firm. He heads the specialty area MS&L Retail and regularly shares trends and insights about how businesses can navigate changing consumer behaviors and media habits. His clients include The Coca-Cola Company, UPS, Best Buy, The Home Depot and McDonald's. He can be reached at 404-870-6857 or [email protected]. He can also be contacted through Facebook and can be followed on Twitter at stephenATL.