Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Newest Power Retailer?

What is a power retailer? Well, some might say this retailer redefines service delivery. Others believe this retailer successfully changes the customer experience.

Meanwhile, some describe this powerhouse as having the ability to constantly crush the competition. And still others say this retailer produces predictable financial results. In my opinion, a true power retailer successfully combines all of these attributes.

While attending the A.G. Edwards Retailing 2007 conference in Miami this week, I got to meet the leader of one of these self-proclaimed retail powerhouses. Who was it? Interestingly, it was Vernon Hill, chairman and president of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bancorp Inc.

I know what you are thinking: A bank is not a retailer. Believe me, I was just as dubious when I listened to Hill describe Commerce Bank as a powerhouse retail brand. After listening to his presentation however, I changed my mind.

Straight-shooter Hill explained how he has created “a growth company in a no-growth business” by modeling his format around those of successful retailers.

“These companies attract loyal shoppers by providing a superior customer experience, not low prices,” he said at the conference. “We followed the same approach. It turns out our core customers are interested in the best experience, not the best rate.”

In fact, Commerce Bank’s entire business strategy keeps its “shopper” top of mind. Targeting the time-starved consumer, Commerce Bank is open seven days a week, and shoppers can bank until 8 p.m. in some locations. The bank offers self-service technology like a coin-counting kiosk (free to customers and non-customers alike), and online banking. And in keeping with its consumer-centric strategy, “in-store” associates cater to shoppers with children by handing out crayons, coloring books, toy banks and lollypops.

Surely, some readers are still questioning how they can twist this model into their own retail operation. Here’s how: Dig into Hill’s core philosophy and build a brand based on the customer’s needs.

“Creating memorable experiences, tapping emotions and delivering on your business promise is what creates fans and builds legendary brands,” he said.

If you are still not convinced, consider this: Hill opened his first location in 1973. By focusing on this retail-inspired business model, he had 30 “stores” in 1990. Today, the fast-growing business has 440 stores across metropolitan markets, including New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., and Southeast Florida, and has more than $45 billion in assets. (This unorthodox chain is also on target to have 900 locations by 2011.)

While I am not a Commerce Bank disciple, Hill’s animated presentation certainly got my juices flowing. What if more retailers took a lesson from Hill?

To me, the worst-case scenario is they would create a brand that fills a void and creates satisfied, loyal customers. More specifically, “a unique, consistent experience is what pushes these shoppers to become fans. And it takes a fan to positively sell your story,” Hill said. Who can argue with that logic?

— Deena M. Amato-McCoy