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Curation: The Future of Retail (And The Past)

A Trend Goes from Bricks to Clicks Then Back to Bricks Again

A few years ago, The Motley Fool, the online stock advisor, proclaimed that “the future of retail is curation.” True, but it’s also its past. The pioneering department stores launched in the late 19th century were all about curation – selecting market-oriented merchandise and organizing mammoth inventories into designated areas (departments) where shoppers could easily browse items that matched their budgets and tastes. Departments were the retail real estate trend of the day, enhancing the shopping experience by organizing the goods formerly found in multiple stores under one roof and presenting them in a shopper-friendly manner. On the opening day of its Herald Square store, Macy’s was not unlike today’s Amazon, featuring a slogan that was all about size – “A Place Where Almost Anything Can Be Bought.”

Online Merchants: New Masters of the Curation Universe

With the largest selection of goods in the world today, Amazon and its merchant partners continue to refine curation online with algorithms that deliver systematized suggestions based on individual consumption patterns. These formulas guide buyers through a staggering selection of items. The goal is to “drive consumer choices and offer new ways to spend money,” says Netflix, another master of online curation. Netflix, along with Zappos (an Amazon company), Wayfair, and furniture.com are among the leaders of the online pack, mining masses of data and matching it with tailored choices to smooth the online shopping experience.

It’s not all algorithms though. Beyond mathematical formulas, online is also the home of celebrity tastemakers and influencers who lend their star quality to collections they appear to have curated on sites like ShoeDazzle and Overstock.com – all chosen to fit their fans’ shopping profiles. And then there’s social commerce, which brings social media into the shopping mix. Glance, a product of Zappos Labs, is a curated fashion platform that lets shoppers “heart” their favorites and share the word about their buys with their Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter communities. Niche online marketers, like Nasty Gal, which evolved from an eBay store, are natural curators with merchandise so sharply targeted that tech may not even be needed to serve up a selection.

Keeping up with the Curators

So what’s a bricks-and-mortar retailer to do when facing celebrity-curated collections and ever-improving product recommendation technologies? Just as the bricks-and-mortars have achieved success online, they’re also rising to the challenge of 21st-century curation. They’re turning sales staff into in-person curators. Well-trained and well-equipped with tablets that connect to a digitized inventory and supply chain, associates on the selling floor are turning browsers into buyers. Employees at Leica, a camera retailer in Manhattan, use a mobile-inventory-centric retail system to present shoppers with products that match their needs. Leica’s system also allows sales staff to do check outs from their iPads (a la the Apple Stores) – for a bricks-and-mortar version of one-click purchasing. That’s a retail real estate trend worth watching.

Struggling Sears is approaching curation in a more traditional but still creative way.

Three pilot stores are hosting “Connected Solutions” – an online and in-store collection that demonstrates how connected electronic smart goods can make for better living. Sear’s in-store sales centers feature a full range of branded devices in the fitness, home, automotive, and mobile categories. The entertaining, interactive environment and tightly edited collection of products helps tech-shy consumers get comfortable with the latest gadgets.

New Tech Innovations for In-Store may be the Next Retail Real Estate Trend

Sophisticated data-capture is the online retailer’s key to providing tailored product recommendations. Tech innovations are now ready to deliver similar insights for the bricks-and-mortar world. Nomi, the largest player in physical analytics, is extending web analytics into the real world with a platform that gathers insights into shopper behavior via mobile. Mobile identification and facial recognition software, and heat mapping technologies are providing information that will enable merchants to offer an individualized experience that’s not so far from the one shoppers have come to expect online. That’s the kind of experience Rowland H. Macy would have loved.