Predicting the future of retail

Joan Maxwell, former VP Merchandising at Vera Bradley, shares her thoughtful take on the future of retail

As January rolls along, I’m thinking about the strategies and tactics I would have put in place for 2017 at Vera Bradley in my former role as VP, Merchandising. This year has begun with some large retailers announcing significant brick & mortar store closures. Malls will need to be reinvented, the validity of department stores is being questioned, and Amazon is experiencing significant double digit growth. No doubt, it’s a new world. With sincere optimism for the opportunity that exists for us merchants, I still believe passionately in the combination of Art & Science.

However, too much art and your collection will appeal to a few fashionistas on the coasts! Too much science, and your displays will be predictable and boring.

At Vera Bradley, we had some great systems in place — a calendar that started the season in a timely way with a cross-functional kick off meeting, open communication between PD, Sourcing, Design, Sales, and Merchants, and a clear brand vision. We also had a passionate following of customers who were loyal to the brand, even though their feedback wasn’t part of our seasonal planning process. When we were trying to decide between the crossbody bag or the tote, we only had the people in the room and data about what had happened last year (totes were strong, crossbodies were trending up).

In this multi-channel world, an opportunity exists to involve our customers in the product development process. Brand fans love the opportunity to learn a bit more about the design process, and love getting feedback on how their input changes the assortment.

Brands would get helpful input at key decision moments. Timing might be a challenge, as it would be difficult for a customer to anticipate what they might want a year from now. But that’s why the art piece of the puzzle needs to remain. If design knows that straw totes are going to be important for summer, they should plan accordingly, no matter what the customer says 12 months prior. But hundreds of decisions are made during the process, and some direction or feedback from brand advocates would be exciting to consider. Maybe some of the long meetings/processes to narrow the final assortment could be shortened — no one would be sad about that!

I’m hoping this is a year of new, exciting products, stimulating displays, engaging marketing, and significant growth for our industry. Onward!

- Joan Maxwell