by Mimi Nicklin (@MimiNicklin) Mr Selfridge, a semi-fictional British series that follows the opening of a ‘first-of-its-kind’ department store in 1920 London (Selfridges), has launched recently on DStv. It occurred to me that, while much in retail has changed since 1920(!), when it comes to selling our wares in 2014, so many of the principles it was innovating with at the original Selfridges store should still form the basis of our retail innovation today.

What can we learn if we look back nearly 100 years at the original principles of selling? And, can we still use these lessons today to drive the highest-engagement possible in selling to the modern-day autopilot shopper?

Innovation persuades the shopper to do something different: to buy, to try, to move, to change, and the stakes are rising as shoppers swap between more stores than ever before.

As Philip Clarke, Tesco’s CEO, noted recently, “Successful retailers will not be those who meekly follow the customers habits like some obedient puppy. They will be one step ahead, offering people new ways to make their shopping that bit better, more engaging, and more valuable.”

Here are four lessons from 1920s’ retailing that are still relevant today:

1) Always remember shoppers are habitual and nervous — so appeal to the senses to change behaviour

Vegetables on displayWhile investment inpackaging design moves ever upwards, the tangibility of our stores becomes more and more one-dimensional as shelves become walls of confusing colour. Brands are not prepared to invest in engaging 4D displays, and the retailers that do often restrict this to flagship stores only.

Selfridges realised early on that bringing fabric out from behind the counters so shoppers could openly touch (without having to ask permission) meant it immediately sold Bicycle saddles on displaydouble. People were engaged personally with their purchase and, so, they bought more. After all, the power of emotion is infinitely stronger than that of the rational mind when shopping.

The stores that are getting rid of the layers of packaging and making products touchable, engaging and even personal again today are those which are winning.

2) It matters where it comes from

Hot chocolate display with Fairtrade organic coffeeIn 1920, people cared where their wares came from. Craftsmanship was worth a premium and local was definitely lekker.

This value disappeared for the best part of a century, but it’s back!

There is a global rise in retail to allow shoppers to engage with the “origin” of the product, openly on show — no hidden labels or ingredients but absolute clarity on where the product came from and how many miles it travelled to your basket.

This allows shoppers to reconfirm the value of the purchase and rationalise their emotional pull to purchase ie “It just looks too good to leave behind — I must try! PLUS it is supporting local business/ethical behaviour so it is a responsible purchase.”

3) Try before you buy, you “won’t regret it”

Woolworths Try meAn age-old trick used by market sellers for centuries. If you believe in your product, allow people to try before they buy.

Arguably, Woolworths and Checkers are leading the way in grocery, and Fruit & Veg City had recently claimed its achievement in reaching its mission to create ‘food theatre’ (food-making stations, fresh grocery, cafés and sushi bars) to change the way shoppers shop at its stores.

This is a trend not limited to grocery, however; it goes all the way to categories such as home décor (where stores often now allow shoppers to take products home for free trials to ensure they are making the right choice before purchase); ‘first-class free’ courses; and even car test-drive experiences that last a weekend (LandRover South Africa).

4) Give people a new reason (or occasion) to buy by inspiring a reconsideration of ingredients and products they may already know.

Woolworths vanilla custard ideasJust because shoppers normally only buy custard for Easter and Christmas, it doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced to buy on other, unplanned, missions for a new occasion.

Woolworths is leading the way here, from food to underwear and clothing; throughout the store, signage gives shoppers new reasons and benefits to look at already-known products in a different light.

Value beyond the transaction

All those years ago, what Mr Selfridge knew was that if shoppers were only interested in price, there wouldn’t be much of a lifespan for retailers — certainly it wouldn’t be the Woolworths shaper posterbehemoth ‘entertainment’ industry it is today.

The variety of retail we see in malls globally proves that different people value different things when it comes to acquiring goods. The trick is to find the value beyond the transaction.

The world’s best brands know what their customers value, and work relentlessly to provide it for them. After all, if Coca-Cola sold only on its functional product attributes (a black, bubbling, sweet liquid) or its price (higher than nearly all its competitors), it wouldn’t be getting very far!

The greatest retail skill

Retail has always served a consumer who has craved more, better and at a Woolworths chocolate and wine displayhigher value—and has been willing to go wherever necessary to get it. So, while mass retail may barely be recognisable since its earliest days, the need to differentiate from the competition through innovation is as great as it has ever been.

It is often said that retail never stops moving and today, more than ever, the need to keep moving forward — while continually looking back — is possibly the greatest retail skill to refine.

Mimi NicklinMimi Nicklin (@MimiNicklin) followed her passion and experience in the consumer, retail and shopper space from regional roles in Europe and Asia, to South African shores in 2010. Having led global brands through the line for Procter & Gamble, and two of London and Hong Kong’s top agencies, her background gives her an international perspective to add to her depth of SA understanding. She serves as strategic director and a partner at 34 Group. Mimi contributes the monthly “The Sell” column concerning shopper marketing to MarkLives.

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