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Retailers get personal to keep customers loyal


“I can’t compete with an Amazon Prime, but I surely can compete with an experience,” says Dana Spinola, founder of fab-rik, a fashion boutique franchise with 42 stores.

A 12-foot T-Rex dinosaur made entirely from 400 Coach purses dominates the new flagship store on New York City’s 5th Avenue, which opened last November, for the 74-year-old American leather goods company.

Rexy, as she’s called, is the brainchild of Stuart Vevers, the Coach creative director for the last three years, charged with reviving Coach after it closed 20 percent of its stores in 2014. Artist Billie Achilleos made the sculpture.

But as dramatic as Rexy is, the second floor is even more compelling, and showcases the biggest thing in retailing today—personalization. In an open-style workshop, resident leather craftsmen will create and sew custom appliques and geegaws—from skull-and-crossbones motifs to silver angel wings—initials or labels on items that customers wish to buy.

Lagging a bit behind their food purveyor peers, the rest of the retail scene is getting intensely personal. And if you love the trend or hate it, you can blame or thank—what else?—Instagram.

Craftsmen sew geegaws

Craftsmen sew geegaws on handbags that Coach customers purchase, right in the store.

“The word customization basically means personalized, and right now we are in a space that people want to create a personal brand,” says Dana Spinola, founder of fab-rik, a fashion boutique franchise headquartered in Atlanta, with more than 42 stores nationwide. “That’s what Instagram is, your personal brand. People want to know they’re special, that they’re thought of as an individual.”

Spinola opened her first store in 2002, and started franchising in 2005. She was turned down by many bankers before she found one who said she could get funding, but only if she came back with a unique idea that made fab-rik different from the rest. “We built our entire brand off the idea that experience was more important than the product,” she says.

Each evening, franchisees are required to send in one “wow” moment they created for a customer that day, and Spinola says she reads every one. One client, harried and with children in tow, was buying a dress for an event that evening, and the staffer offered to go to her house after work and do her hair and makeup for free. Another admired a necklace a staff member was wearing, and the store sent her the necklace that night. Stores budget for the expense, but Spinola says the gesture doesn’t have to be costly. “I can’t compete with an Amazon Prime, but I surely can compete with an experience,” she says.

Jumping on the trend

Many other retailers are hopping on the trend—in fact, it’s difficult to find a brand that is not.

Scott and Molly’s Boutique is a franchised chain that keeps a simple idea in mind, according to its website: “No style fits all. Scout and Molly’s helps to maintain individuality while dressed in the latest trends.”

Rexy T-Rex

Rexy is a 12-foot T-Rex dinosaur made from Coach leather goods in its flagship Manhattan store.

Apricot Lane Boutique, likewise, boasts a “one-of-a-kind shopping experience,” in which franchisees act as their own buyers, including bringing in crafts from local artisans that are sometimes picked up by corporate.  

In franchising, “most people think, it’s this way or the highway. You’ve got to flip your burgers every three seconds,” says CEO Ken Petersen. “In women’s fashion you can’t do that. Florida is different from Texas and certainly from Bismarck, North Dakota.”  

A few more examples of extreme customization in retail include: At Drink, a non-alcoholic beverage bar in the American Eagle Outfitters store in Times Square in New York City, you can choose at least one beverage from nearly every major category in the industry, including Hi-Ball Energy, MOTTO sparkling matcha tea, Pure Brazilian coconut water and much more.

At Massage Heights, a massage and facial chain based in San Antonio, customers can purchase “lifestyle programs,” which are billed as customized memberships.

Even mass merchandiser Target is taking note, “shedding some of its stalwart brands and launching more than a dozen new ones” over the next 18 months in apparel and home furnishings, according to the Wall Street Journal. “People are looking for something that is more curated and meaningful to their specific lifestyle,” Mark Tritton, Target’s chief merchandising officer, told the WSJ.

In short, we’ve come a long way from “hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” the classic Burger King commercial from 1974 that urged customers to “have it your way.” Fast forward more than four decades, and the slogan could be: “have it your way, and your way, and your way, and your way….”

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