THE TREND PREDICTOR: WENDY LIEBMANN
Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail
Wendy Liebmann knows what you’re going to buy before you do. She also knows why, and where you’re going to shop for it. The Australian-born founder of WSL Strategic Retail has been conducting research and reading the tea leaves about consumer habits for more than two decades, helping companies across beauty, fragrance, food, and fashion build retail strategies by staying connected to the desires and priorities of the customers navigating the shop floor. “We observe shoppers everywhere from the subway to some mountain in Peru,” she says. “We look at things and ask, ‘What is happening? Why is it happening? How can we ground that in data? What’s the insight? What does it mean about the future?’” The answers are often surprising, and always invaluable. Here, Liebmann talks to ACCORDS about the state of retail today, and shares her thoughts on how the fragrance industry can capture more consumers as we head into 2020.
How does WSL work to create shopper-led retail experiences?
We help our clients, who are both manufacturers and retailers, stay focused on what shoppers are doing and thinking and how that will impact their purchasing behavior. We know how people want to consume a product, but when it comes to how they want to buy and where they want to buy, that’s something that companies can get stuck in their own heads about. We help them anticipate where shoppers are headed. Our focus has always been on understanding the economic, political, social, and technological factors that are impacting how people are living their lives, and how that impacts how they choose to spend money on goods and services, and ultimately on specific categories and products.
We do a lot of our own primary research, under the banner of How America Shops. The first study we did was almost 30 years ago, and it was really based on our curiosity about changes in where people were shopping. They were shopping high and low, mass and prestige, and it was weird in those days. Why did somebody who shopped at Saks also shop at Walmart? Now, because we’ve been tracking consumer behavior for so long, we can help our clients see how things have shifted, and then help them determine where the shopper is headed, so they can build a relevant retail experience, whether that’s physical or digital.
What are some of the larger trends that you’ve seen coming before anyone else?
One of the most impactful is the shift we saw coming back in 2015 or 2016 from acquiring things to what we call buying happiness. It was the moment we saw how the notion of the American Dream, which had been grounded in acquisition—I want my own home, I want my own car—move into this very emotionally-driven set of values, and that evolved somewhat out of the recession. That’s when people started to talk about things like well-being and less stress and financial stability in ways that were highly emotive. It’s really changed everything, and driven the whole trend towards health and wellness.
Now, the big trend that we have been tracking with our clients has been all about time. That has become a foundational shift in everything you deliver, whether it’s products like fragrance, or how you’re presented at retail—people are making choices that are saying, “If it’s not easy for me, I’m not interested.” The idea of “taking stress out of my life” has evolved into “I value my time.” That’s one of the big threads that we see today.
What else are you seeing now that you think points to the future?
What we’re looking at here is this major reset in the shopper’s mindset. Last year, we talked about shoppers trying to wrest control in a world of chaos, and what’s emerged in our recent work is that the shopper is now saying, “I have to take control.” They’re incredibly purposeful about everything they do. It’s grounded in this fundamental trust that people are now thinking through. If you talk about perfect beauty, they turn it on their head and talk about how it’s fine to be imperfect. People are challenging the old truths. They’re thinking about their purpose in life, not their possessions in life. That’s changing the way that brands and retailers need to think about how they do business, because there’s now a very different sense of how we need to engage shoppers.
How would you describe what’s happening in fragrance retail specifically?
The fragrance industry is doing what everybody else in the beauty industry is doing, which is not understanding the magnitude of the change. The good news is that they’ve been fairly level for some time. But to me, the companies, both brand and retailers, need to understand that fragrance has to have a different emotional tenor now. It isn’t only about a designer or celebrity or a gorgeously designed package, it’s about the emotional value of the moments that fragrance creates in our lives and in our memories and in our health and well-being. It’s a massive opportunity that a lot of companies are not responding to.
We talk to younger consumers all the time about their shopping, and they think of fragrance in different ways. They think about fragrance in terms of candles or the lavender spray they put on their pillow. It’s become much more holistic than just a bottle of perfume. I think the good news for the industry at large is business is stable. The bad news for the industry at large is business is stable. Meaning that the value of fragrance as a tool for well-being has not really been captured or taken advantage of yet.
How do you think they should seize that opportunity?
I think stepping back and saying, “How can we talk about fragrance in a different way?” We did some work years ago with a retailer who was trying to create a different focus for their fragrance experience, and we brought all the executives into a strategy session and asked them to talk about a moment in their life where fragrance had an emotional impact. It was such a valuable tool because all of these fragrance executives were able to remember the essence of what a smell does to you. We had people talk about everything from their mother’s kitchen and special meals to the smell of their newborn baby to their wedding day. It was extraordinary. I think these are the levels of engagement that consumers are looking for again. And I think that’s part of the tremendous opportunity here. Look around at who’s doing interesting things—for example, you walk into a hotel like the Westin and it has a fragrance. It’s not just like, “Isn’t this clean?” but rather, “Oh, we must be at the Westin.” That is what consumers of fragrance are looking for today, an emotional resonance and memory that only a wonderful smell can create.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about how people shop for perfume?
On the one hand, the industry at large thinks about fragrance as a browsing experience where somebody wants to come in and immerse themselves. What we’ve come to know is most of that mythology was driven in a time when people had more time, and the retail experience was more relevant for them to come in and wander through. Today, life has become so frenetic that people buy fragrance the same way we see them buy everything. They are in a hurry, and they are so overwhelmed by the choice. Walking into a department store is like walking down the beauty aisle or into the grocery store—it becomes so challenging to pick one or to immerse yourself in one, that people now go on autopilot. Fragrance, which should be an emotional purchase, has become a category, like lots of other categories, where people go, “Can I get it fast?” “Is it easy to understand?” “Am I just replenishing?” “Do I care to spend my valuable time immersing myself in something new? “Celebrity A has talked about it, I’ll just buy it.” We need to break that rhythm. We’ve seen it in categories like specialty food, where the goods are presented through sight and smell and curation.
What are some examples of the way those other categories have broken the rhythm?
I’m struck by the new Comme des Garçons store in Paris, which I’ve been reading about. The way that store has very selectively chosen the brands that it will carry, which is not only Comme des Garçons but other fragrance brands. Each of the brands are presented in ways that are limited, and each with their own very selective space. I think that allows the voice and message and the story to be clearer to the consumer. Less is more, which is always a challenge in this market because we’re so used to “more is more.” The storytelling needs to be much more differentiated. I think the storytelling now is left outside the physical space and left to social media and Instagrammable messaging. The experience in the store is just to literally pile it on, and I think that’s a big miss.
If you walk into an Eataly, the messaging of what it stands for—that it’s about Italian lifestyle and food—is immediate. It’s also clearly organized by either food type or experience. So you’ve got the fishmonger, and then the prepackaged fish and the place to eat the fish. And, “Okay, now how about some wine while you’re buying your fish?” They’ve created these microcosms of specialty that enable people to immerse themselves in a cultural message, an experience from the highest level down to the very utilitarian question of “What’s for dinner tonight?”
I think that’s why the smaller, independent specialty retailers who are doing fragrance are continuing to grow, because there are people who want that immersive experience that they’re not getting it in a larger retail space like a department store. Sephora turned fragrance on its head two decades ago by saying, “We’re going to make it much more democratic. We’re going to let you shop by alphabetized fragrance.” When they did that, it was novel, and it was approachable. You could test scent without people leaning over you all the time and trying to force something on you. But we haven’t seen that kind of innovation in a long time.
What can digital fragrance retailers be doing beyond sampling?
I think digital has the ability to create emotional visual experiences, and it’s missing out. We can create a virtual reality, like walking through the lavender fields of Provence, but what the industry has done is it has used the online platform more for just replenishment. Or, there’s the fragrance, there’s the model, there’s the bottle, there’s the price, ship it home. Some fragrance brands have beautiful imagery, but they’re not using the technology to create a mood board that takes me into the visual experience and enables me to understand what the sensory experience is. Those things can be so powerful. It’s like hearing a perfumer talk about how they’ve created something, and you can smell it without actually smelling it.
So the brands that are putting perfumers front and center are doing it right?
That’s the other piece, right? The power of storytelling about the fragrance. I never think it’s about a green note or whatever note. I just like what I like. But that whole proposition about hearing a perfumer talk about a scent, it’s like hearing a great artist talk. Even if it’s just about how they created the fragrance that’s in my laundry detergent. It’s incredibly palpable.