If You Want To Sell Things, Don’t Be a Marketer

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The era of the store as media is upon us.

- Doug Stephens, Retail Prophet

With his eloquent delivery and passion for his products, Steve Jobs could sell ice to an Eskimo, or so the saying goes. But Jobs, if you asked him, never sold a thing. Former Apple VP Allison Johnson divulged that Jobs hated the word marketing. He didn't want to be a marketer or a salesman. He wanted to effectively communicate what's so great about Apple's products and what made the experience using them so enjoyable. In other words, he wanted to be a storyteller (and boy, was he ever).

What he was describing-selling vs. storytelling-has become the greatest showdown in retail history, leading to the downfall of decades-old brands like Staples, Radio Shack and JC Penney. Following the lead of Amazon and Zappos, younger, smaller, more agile brands like Warby Parker, Thrillist and Birchbox took to the Web with innovative business models. They pushed established retailers to the fringes of relevancy by pairing content with commerce-providing customers with brand journalism, personality, customization, personalization, information, convenience and free shipping, all just a click away.

The Struggle for Shopping Supremacy

Not too long ago, retail and digital were two different worlds. The Internet was for conversation while retail was for shopping. Now retailers are scrambling to figure out how to infuse digital into the physical shopping experience to make it more enjoyable (seamless) and less time consuming (stressful).

In its current state, e-commerce has the higher ground in this battle. Obvious advantages include convenience and cost savings, but there are others beneath the surface. Just think about the information disconnect between the vast depths of Google and the retail employee making minimum wage. When shopping online, you can search and find information in a matter of seconds, or at most minutes. But while shopping in-store, even the simplest questions can go unanswered by uniformed employees, which is no surprise considering the low wages and high turnover in retail.

The digital floodwaters are pouring into brick-and-mortar retailers and this tide won't lift all boats. So how can retailers survive? It's not in the selling. It's all in the experience.

The retailers that are thriving are the ones that turn their shopping experiences (online and in-store) into immersive environments that put the customer first, which is far more than just living the mantra "the customer is always right." Nowadays, to put the customer first means the brand must be able to show the role it will play in the narrative of the customer's life. How will they feel when using your product? How does it make their life easier? What does it help them accomplish and how are their lives better with your product in it? The more you can literally show them the answers to these questions, the better.

Who is Making Shopping Memorable?

We could point out Apple's retail locations as the go-to example for better retail environments, but another great example is AT&T's 10,000-square foot flagship store in Chicago. This store uses immersive experiences like an apps lounge, a street smart section (complete with a Nissan Leaf) and Chicagoland (featuring products useful in navigating the city's streets like a power bag and bike handle device mounts), all augmented by touchscreen surfaces, massive video screens and comfortable areas to sit. A Manhattan boutique aptly named Story built their store from the point of view of a magazine, where everything changes every four to eight weeks like a gallery and it sells things like a store. It expands the concept of retail media by offering products, events and brands, built anew each time around different themes like Color Story (sponsored by Benjamin Moore) and Home for the Holidays (sponsored by American Express).

This isn't just a brick-and-mortar opportunity either. Try-it-before-you-buy-it retailers like Warby Parker and Stitchfix puts the brand in the context of the customer's narrative by helping them choose which product is right for them through personal styling and crowdsourced opinions across social channels. Warby Parker took the opposite route of most retailers, opening brick-and-mortar stores in a number of cities after being exclusively e-commerce based. Birchbox and Thrillist put content first, becoming destinations for style and pop culture and positioning e-commerce as just one of its many offerings. All of these brands took a cold hard look at the traditional shopping environments, both online and off, and tried to reimagine the retail environment from the perspective of the customer.

The bar of what impresses people enough to talk about with their friends, family and social networks is high, at least for retail. Nobody tweets about their trip to Macy's or how fun it was to buy a hat at Lids. But people line up to get into the Apple store (not just during product launches) and tour the Zappos offices…yes, the offices of an online company. People will share their Warby Parker frames on Instagram and check-in to that dive bar that serves insanely good cheese fries.

Selling a product or service is harder, not easier, now than it ever was. That's because nobody wants to be sold to. They want experiences - whether those are online, offline or both.

Jon Thomas is a senior digital Strategist at TracyLocke and frequent contributor to Say Daily . Follow him on Twitter @Story_Jon.

[Photo credit: Story]