CHICAGO – For more than 20 years, Laura Heller has covered the mass-market retail industry. Few reporters can claim to have the breadth of experience and knowledge in the field as she can.
She’s chronicled the story of virtually ever major retailer in the nation, and a lot of small ones. She’s educated the world about the rise and fall of iconic companies like Circuit City Stores and K-mart; the struggles of Sears and Radio Shack; and she’s been there from day one as the online retailers like Amazon changed the shopping environment.
She began her career covering the retail and consumer electronics industries for leading Business-2-Business publications before everything went digital. Print magazines included including Discount Store News/Retailing Today, Drug Store News, Grocery Headquarters, Chain Store Age, Consumer Electronics Daily, Home Channel News, License! Global and Shopper Marketing Magazine. When the publishing world went nearly completely digital, she was named executive editor of Fierce Retail, a leader in the retail industry trade publications.
She covered retail trends for Dealnews.com — contributing multiple stories each month with retail news, money-saving shopping tips and advice. And contributed regularly to business publications including Shopper Marketing Magazine (part of the Path To Purchase Institute); wrote weekly news items for Store Brands Decisions and Green Retail Decisions; and contributed feature stories to Retail Leader.
She has appeared on national TV and radio programs discussing retail trends including CNBC’s “Closing Bell,” ABC News Now and National Public Radio.
Today, her work is found on Forbes.com under her column “The Point of Purchase.” Recent articles covered why boycotts targeting retailers over political issues don’t make sense, and Wal-Mart’s battle to dethrone Amazon.
Heller took time out of her day to give Paratus Business News her thoughts on the idea that the Survival Industry is stigmatized as overtly appealing to Right Wing or Conservative consumers, and how that can damage a business’ opportunity to attract new customers. She also gave us her tips to help prepper or self-reliance businesses embrace millions of potentially new customers that may not be conservative voters, but want to spend their money for survival gear.
Paratus Business News: The belief among many in the Survival Industry is that Republican or Libertarian voters, the traditional market that drove prepper sales and interest for the past decade is now beginning to relax, and thus sales are slowing. Yet, the trend, according to the media, is that instead of interest, and sales dissipating, the market should be shifting to a new customer because the Democratic side of the aisle appears to be the new prepper. If this is true, and some indicators support the theory, what are the challenges for the Survival Industry businesses that staked their position on the right side of the political aisle? How do they attract this new market? Or can they?
Laura Heller: The truth of the matter is that a business can’t be everything to everyone. They decide pretty early on who their target market is. They develop a business plan and a strategy to target that market and reach it. Then they try to grow that market.
Now if they topped out of their current market, or they think that market is shrinking, for whatever reason, the business has to respond with new initiatives, weather the storm or exit the business if it can’t make a profit. There are many reasons why a market will top out: there is only so many things a person can buy or have; or in an industry built on concerns for the future, the consumers have a new sense of calm, and they aren’t motivated to spend the way they have in the past.
So, if a business has staked its strategy targeting a specific market (in this case, the Right side of the political aisle) and now must consider looking for new markets, that’s a different story than someone who is a general sporting goods retailer that already has those demographics walking through their doors. Those are two different stories.
For a business that has planted its flag in a particular political position, it can be awfully difficult to shift gears and bring in customers that it had either decidedly not targeted, or actually targeted as an enemy.
If a customer’s beliefs have been mocked, or they are made to be afraid of a group of people, they will not go into that business whether online or in a physical location. It doesn’t matter what your marketing.
Right or wrong, the prepper community is very much associated with the far right or alt-right groups.
PBN: Understanding a consumer’s fear certainly makes sense for shoppers who, right or wrong, fear guns,for instance, but recognize a need. A tactical store will look and feel different than a sporting goods store with fishing and baseball gear. Does that mean a business that made its living selling and marketing products that are supported by one side of the political aisle is stuck there?
Heller: Not exactly. Keep in a mind that an online store may feel a little less threatening. Maybe a consumer visits a website out of curiosity and once there, the customer sees that maybe their perception was off, or they see or hear language that speaks to them, and they understand a little better. Online is the channel where a business may be able to moderate some of its positioning.
The in-store environment is different and often intimidating, especially to somebody that is new to a product category. In particular, a product category that in the past the consumer found to be a little bit threatening. Or maybe outside of their value system.
PBN: If you take the gun market as an example, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Academy Sporting Goods are completely different environments from gun shows. At gun shows, many retailers wear their politics, and disdain for the other side of the political aisle, on their sleeves. Even a Conservative, with any business savvy, will cringe at that. Yet no one will deny that business owner’s First Amendment Right. However, the business owner has to know he is giving the competitor money. I doubt most consumers buy products because the business owner shares their beliefs. Price, quality, customer service, trust, always win the day. But being insulted will always drive the customer away. So, for shoppers that are suddenly motivated by new concerns for the future, and want to purchase items they are unfamiliar with (and online isn’t right for them yet) is it too late for a bricks and mortar retailer to tone down its politics at the store?
Heller: Probably not, depending on who it is. If a Democrat walks into an independently-owned shop and it’s selling Barack Obama practice targets, or a Confederate Flag is hanging inside, or is emblazoned on products inside; many consumers will be immediately turned off, and never go back there.
But if consumers are suddenly concerned about things and are putting together some survival materials, they might go into a new store out of curiosity. If it feels like a non-threatening environment (like the national big box stores), and somebody honestly asks questions to “qualify” a sale, or help the customer understand what their needs might be because they don’t know themselves, that’s the hook. You have the customer now.
And if that customer has never been in the store before, they may never know if offensive things ever existed in there.
In the end if the political views are irrelevant to the product, maybe they don’t belong on instructional materials or in marketing. Why would a consumer read something from someone, or some business, that first insults them and their views?
PBN: How should these businesses talk to the new market?
Heller: Non-partisan. Everyone is a consumer. Period.
PBN: Should big box retailers with survival products, who are monitoring this market, move survival gear front and center to capture the “new” prepper?
Heller: This is interesting. I think the angle is self-sufficiency and responsibility. These are good messages that don’t play on paranoia and aren’t terribly divisive.
I think cross merchandising is a good idea. Shoppers don’t see things in categories they never had an interest in before. So getting them out of their assigned aisles into the path of purchase is going to be necessary.
PBN: You mentioned the concept of a sporting goods store already capturing a wide market. Kids of all political stripes play sports, people buy exercise equipment. Their marketing is far broader than a specialty shop. Would you qualify survival businesses as specialty or destination businesses?
Heller: Essentially, yes. It’s not Target or Wal-Mart. You go there specifically because you’re interested in outdoor gear, hiking, or camping, or weapons. And that makes them destination outlets.
PBN: How does that change the marketing or the channels shoppers use to find them? Clearly, the consumer mindset is different for targeted sales than a general interest shopper.
Heller: Yes, of course. A much more targeted market.
Businesses already know where to find existing customers. They don’t know where a customer is if they’re not reaching them now. They don’t know that their messaging is missing customers because those customers are not reading anything the business has an advertisement or a banner ad in, or the usual channels.
To find new customers requires research, and unfortunately that sometimes means bringing in consultants or using some of the Google ad tools that are not free. It’s where the business works on having some kind of online retargeting marketing tools that can help speak to that particular customer based on his or her search behavior, the terms they use, or their demographic profile. It’s expensive, but there is good software available today that will track a customer based on their online touch points, and tells you a little more about that person. Those are budgetary concerns. And that’s an online environment.
For bricks and mortar, I honestly think that one of the best ways to reach the new market is to offer clinics and instruction. I think that for someone new to prepping, there is a huge learning curve and the need for education. They don’t even know where to begin.
To reach them in a mainstream way could be to talk about self-sufficiency such as homesteading, or gardening. How to survive a long term power outage.
There are people that don’t know how to do some of the basic things that the existing customer base is well beyond. You want to begin to cultivate those customers with the steep learning curve.
PBN: This requires a new kind of shopping experience?
Heller: Take a page from the home improvement industry. They teach basic classes on a Saturday morning when people are engaged in home improvement projects: how to paint a wall; how to hang dry wall; how to install a toilet. Or partner with a gun range and maybe incorporate a basics class on a Sunday after church.
Look at similar, but not same, businesses and evaluate their best practices. Sporting goods and outdoor stores will have indoor rock climbing clinics. Lululemon holds free Saturday morning yoga classes to bring people into the store to learn about the products they’re selling, and the activities they are practicing, that their products are geared towards.
PBN: Have you ever thought about the concept of marketing through fear? Survival businesses are especially good at that, but are they alone? Certainly normal retailers like grocery stores or hardware stores have engaged in that type of marketing in areas regularly threatened by earthquakes or hurricanes.
Heller: We know that hardware stores market stress when they start running their winter preparation ads selling snow blowers, salt, generators. And hurricane season in the south creates big marketing pushes for the things you need. It’s standard, based on seasonal weather issues.
PBN: Right, but the Survival Industry does that and more. Right or wrong. The difference is some businesses market on existing tense situations nonstop. Black Lives Matter protests: they market the real or imagined threat as if it is everywhere, spilling into neighborhoods. Brexit: they create a threat in the U.S., a run on supplies. Very smart people say these guys who market through fear are targeting customers that will have a short attention span because no one can sustain, or live, in a state of fear forever. Their customers will fade away and move on to something else. Is that similar for a hardware store that promotes their products based on possible emergencies?
Heller: It’s something that is true and seasonal. It’s not imaginary. Hurricanes will come, and wind and rain will damage homes. It’s historically accurate. I live in Chicago; there is a time every year when I ask why I don’t own a snow blower. You’re not creating something out of nothing.
What these everyday businesses do is build a sensible marketing plan based on historical data. And that’s different than marketing to fear. I think that preparedness and fear often go hand in hand in this market, but they don’t have to.
Being prepared for every occasion is practical and being afraid of things that have not happened yet is not. That is the kind of thing that weighs heavily on people and will create exhaustion. They’ll say to themselves, “I’ve been caught in an echo chamber and my friends and family don’t want me talking about this anymore.”
PBN: Or I’ve done what I can do, and it’s time to move on.
Heller: But if you’re talking about making yourself more self-sustainable, that is an ongoing proposition. It is a continuous revenue stream. It is not reactionary. A garden has to be tended, and harvested and re-seeded. It’s a seasonal ongoing event. It’s all lifestyle. Power sources, home goods, all of them are things that need replenishment.
Again, look at what the big trends are in the broader consumer market and retail industry. You see more personalized experiences, in-store experiences – be it entertainment, clinics or samplings. That is what is driving business and people to these stores.
For the online retailer, it requires smarter retargeting. Smarter more personalized experiences online and in store.
In-store events or experiential retailing, which is giving people reasons to go to bricks and mortar, is where the big sales are, and where you can create that connection, which is harder to do online.
Also, there is a real trend towards subscription models. Your readers lend themselves to that, where every month they get a box of X, Y and Z depending on what their interests are.
Is it stuff for your pantry or things that are replenished regularly? And then you add one or two things that they haven’t tried before.
PBN: In terms of marketing, are bloggers, retailers and manufacturers missing something or improperly focused on “the wrong things” in regards to Liberal preppers? Where can the businesses and advice givers improve their communications with Liberals?
Heller: It’s pretty clear that the Left and the Right are not exposed to the same information, so anything targeting Conservative preppers likely goes completely unseen or unnoticed by the Left.
PBN: For stores (or even bloggers dependent on eyeballs and advertising), who have been marketing to one political direction or another, is possible to dial back the politics without losing audience/market share?
Heller: I don’t see why not, but I don’t understand the extreme mindset. The type of retail I’ve covered all these years don’t play to the extreme mindset.
I’ve done no research on it, but I don’t understand that as a way to drive consumer behavior over the long term.
PBN: I think you make a valuable point. You’ve covered the most successful retail businesses in the world. They don’t get there by turning off half the market.
Heller: But sometimes they have to weather that storm when they do. For example, people are lining up on either side of these boycott/support campaigns of the week. Starbucks, for instance, reflects the corporate culture of the founder. So when it announced they’d hire 10,000 refugees around the world, the response was very negative. But three years ago they made the same announcement about hiring 10,000 veterans, and three years in, they’ve hired 8,000 veterans, and now the response is why didn’t they publicize it? Why didn’t it get coverage? Well, three years ago, Forbes did cover it. I covered it. But it didn’t matter to anyone three years ago.
It’s a weapon to use against a business. You can’t please both sides when extreme thinking takes root. Very often, big businesses such as Target, Starbucks or Wal-Mart (which is much better at avoiding this) or Amazon will state their position on an issue, and whether their position falls hard on the right or hard on the left, they will take it on the chin.
PBN: Whole Foods is a great example. The CEO has staked out right-leaning positions, but the customer base is decidedly left leaning. How does he weather it? Is it that he has good product, good prices, are accessible and they don’t go overboard about the politics?
Heller: If the position is authentic then it will work. If you’ve staked your position in the market by flying the Confederate Flag, and then suddenly you’re not going to do that any more, it feels a little calculated. It has to feel authentic to your customer base.
It is one of those indefinable things about corporate culture. One of the best parts of my job is seeing how corporate culture is apparent and evident in the store without being obvious. They don’t hand you a flyer about your corporate culture when you walk in the store, but it is evident.
Be true to who you are. If you really believe all those things, you can’t hide them. But is there a way to state your beliefs in a way that won’t turn off customers? Sure. You can be inclusive and have a point of view that is distinctly yours.
Most people don’t know the details of the corporate culture, but it is something you feel. It is something the consumers feel. You can walk in to Target and a Wal-Mart and the products are virtually the same. The feel of those stores comes from the culture that developed them.
PBN: If you’ve been alerted to the idea that your environment could portray a feeling that would turn off customers, that can be addressed, right?
PBN: Through customer interaction training, signage, messaging? Qualification training?
Heller: Yes. But let’s not forget that many companies have some community involvement. Whether they’re a member of the business community organization, or have a philanthropy they work with, they’re doing something to connect with customers and the community in a cause sort of way. A business owner can pick and choose that carefully.
PBN: Choosing whom you support doesn’t mean you are betraying your beliefs.
Heller: Think about trying to appeal to a new customer that is on the liberal side of the hunting lifestyle. The customer will be squeamish about it. They may have been a vegetarian on and off in their life, or they feel sorry for the animal, rightly or wrongly.
If you sell hunting products, do you promote the idea that you support responsible hunting? Do you support a cause that works with animal conservancy? You can support a cause that is true to both sides of the aisle.
PBN: There are middle grounds that can support your political leanings but don’t turn off the other side.
Heller: Right. So your customer base primarily shops at your store for deer season, or whatever, but you want to grow your customer base. There is a market for gun owners that don’t want to kill animals. They want a weapon for self-defense. So you make them feel better about this decision and about you as business, even if they are new to the firearms product.