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LUSH – The value of connection

Volatility and unpredictability has been hitting the retail sector. The recent closures at Toys R Us, and HMV are only two high profile examples of how retail is struggling in the fast changing digital age. In the USA, job losses in the sector have been occurring in 10 of the last 12 months. In the UK 15% of spending is online (20% in fashion) and 82% of shoppers are using self-service tills, which has squeezed another 62,000 jobs out of the retail sector. Retail has simply had the fastest falls in employment of all sectors in the UK. Gloom and doom. Many in the sector are papering over the cracks but this is not the time for resilience, it’s time for reinvention.

Perhaps my experience in Lush is sign of what retailers need to do rethink the relationship with consumers and the purpose of retailing. And that’s the key: providing an ‘Experience’.

Just before Christmas last year I entered – or more precisely I was dragged into – a store in Oxford Street, London, by my family. I am NOT a fan of cosmetic stores and have a boredom threshold of about 3 nano seconds, before I start thinking of excuses to leave. After all, life is short and shouldn’t, in my view, require excessive contact with multi-coloured bath bombs and shower gels.

But I walked out a convert…and proud owner of far too many aforementioned bath bombs and shower gels than I can possibly use use in my now 1-hour shortened life?

Why? The power of human connection. I was already in conversation with a store assistant (or perhaps they should be called ‘engagers’) as I was climbing the stairs. Simple authentic communication between humans. No hard sell – the focus was on connection. I was greeted by a new employee who was as infectiously bubbly as their bubble baths and made no excuse for being unable to answer my questions. Seemed like there was a healthy culture here of being yourself in the presence of the customer and admitting you didn’t know everything. She simply brought in more experienced assistants and chatted easily about her experience in the store. She said she had met a huge range of different people working there and loved the contact with the rest of the world who came to the store.

Who needs to be a frequent flyer when you can be exposed to people from over 50 nationalities in a day?

Most of the assistants flaunt their individuality and diversity (from dress to hairstyles), but all of them seemed genuinely interested in finding out who we were and…well, making contact. There was lots of experimenting with bath bombs from the shelves in sinks of coloured water – tactile, immediate, joyful. I asked what the downside of working there was…she thought about it and said she couldn’t really say at the moment – only upsides. Can’t imagine what the employee engagement survey says, but seeing that Lush is always in the top 10 best retailers to work for, I presume they are doing something right. This was looking after your employees as a prerequisite for customer delight.

As I left the store looked back and saw an employee enjoying herself with bubble blowing – not as a performance for customers, but seemingly for her own satisfaction. Nice.

Lush have a strong focus on ethical sourced products, not animal tested…and causes and campaigns which they report on with an ‘educational’ focus on their website etc. They are very smart users of social media and position themselves as social activists. This elevates the purchase of bubble bath to support for projects which make a difference. Who says soap can’t (indirectly) save lives.

But the key to my conversion was the simple act of allowing employees to be their authentic selves with customers – like meeting up with friends of friends and getting to know them in all their diversity. Refreshing.

As Seth Godin said: “In their race to out-Walmart Walmart, retailers everywhere forgot the real reason we need stores. Because shopping together makes us feel connected. Because it’s fun. Because there’s something about the shopping that’s almost as good (or even better) than the buying part. The buying race is over. Amazon won. The shopping race, though, the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that’s just beginning.”

…and how well Lush has created value in turbulent times out of such experiences. Retailing is not dead if retailers remember that humans need connection.

Now off to meditate on reinventing our own client/participant experience…by indulging in my absurdly over-stocked bubble bath collection….

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