‘Customers want storytelling’: Why retailers are giving brands new access to in-store associates

As fashion companies, including Gucci, DVF and Milly, pull back on wholesale channels in favor of working more directly with consumers, department stores are strategizing to give them what they want — often, an opportunity to tell consumers who they are and why they’re worth shopping. An increasingly common fix is the promise of a sales staff well-trained on the brand’s product and backstory.

Last week at NYC’s Milk Studios, Nordstrom held its third seasonal Nordstrom Live, a three-day event featuring heads of the retailer’s “best brands,” according to a company representative, as well as members of Nordstrom’s fashion office, and attended by 100 of the retailer’s top salespeople across the U.S. The brands are given exclusive floor time to share whatever they’d like with attendees and beyond — a digital presentation recapping the event is created by mid-September and made available to associates companywide.

Equipment’s chief brand officer, Sarah Rutson, focused on the brand’s story before launching a mini runway presentation of the brand’s key fall looks. Theory hosted a “Be Heard” panel of female entrepreneurs, all wearing looks by the brand. Sharon Krief and Sarah Benady from French brand Ba&sh talked through the creative process of the brand, launching at Nordstrom this fall.

“We’re fortunate to have relationships with top brands and leaders in the industry, to partner with us and help tell their stories so that our salespeople can bring them to life for the customer,” said Tricia Smith, Nordstrom’s evp and general merchandise manager of women’s apparel. “Content captured is leveraged as an educational tool for all Nordstrom stylists and salespeople throughout the season.”

She said employees consistently report that the experience empowers them with knowledge and direction to create the best possible service experience. “We take the feedback from employees and our brand partners to help evolve the discussion each season, so that it’s relevant in the rapidly changing retail climate,” she said.

Nordstrom has been comparatively fast at bringing into the fold direct-to-consumer brands, known for leaning on a strong brand story. Initiating robust training on those stories is also a forward approach; brands have long been left to fend for themselves.

A runway show during Levi’s segment at Nordstrom Live

Paul Trible, co-founder and CEO of menswear brand Ledbury, which has Bloomingdale’s on its stockist, said two years ago, when his digital-native brand entered the wholesale space, retailers were hesitant to offer up access to associates — but his larger accounts are now changing their tune.

“We quickly realized the key to success in the wholesale channel is the [salespeople] themselves,” he said. “Management was not giving them the resources they needed. They didn’t want them to tell our story, because they thought people would just go shop our website. Now, they’re realizing the importance of brand building, online and in stores.”

Ledbury has worked to carve out “product knowledge sessions” two to three times a year, held over 30-minute lunches with in-store sales teams of large retail partners. The focus is styles’ unique selling points — Italian fabric, a lowered collar button — as well as the brand’s backstory, which includes the founders learning the trade by working with a tailor in London and the fact that production takes place at its Richmond, Virginia, headquarters in the second-oldest shirt-making facility in the U.S.

More often, though, Trible and his team conduct less formal training, approaching associates on the floor for informative one-on-one discussions.

“It’s a big time and effort commitment, but in the end, it helps grow the business,” he said, of the first-hand training the brand proves. He said Ledbury sees more consistent sales in the cities where it conducts the most training, plus an immediate return the week after training sessions at the respective stores. Ideally, he’d like to be hosting two product knowledge sessions per season, per store.

Trible said the large department stores have long been most accommodating because their employees are spread thin; owners and buyers are not as connected to the sales floor as they would like, and the Ledbury team is stepping in as their eyes and ears on the floor. And lately, the stores are encouraging it.

“They’re starting to realize their success is in offering moments of discovery to their customers,” Trible said. “To compete with what’s online, they’re saying, ‘How can we partner to get you exposed to our customer base and offer them newness and interest? There are still guys with their heads in the sand, but the smarter folks are looking to the future are realizing the synergies with brands that will provide a valuable experience. It’s going to help their customer and their business.”

To ensure their brands are being represented in all their glory, as more retailers are promising, brand founders admit they’re secret-shopping their designated spaces in their partner stores more than before.

Polly Rodriguez, CEO of Unbound, a brand of “sexual lifestyle goods,” said she hits up NYC stores to check that all samples are on display and to test associates selling her brand with questions, both tactical and brand-story related. If they don’t know the story — which she said has only happened once — she’ll introduce herself and share what the brand stands for. At Selfridges, based in the U.K., she sends her female investors to step in, though admitted, “It’s not a scalable system.”

Trible said he also shops his brand in stores —  “not to have a ‘Got you!’ moment but to say, ‘Hey, we can rectify this,’” communicating any issues back to the buyer. And buyers are receptive.

Syama Meagher, chief retail strategist at Scaling Retail, said the involvement brands want in the selling process varies, but getting their brand story told in store is the common objective. Some are merely adding more information on their story to product hang tags. Others are going so far as to send brand ambassadors to work the sales floor on behalf of the brand.

“Retailers are no longer worried about customers becoming brand loyalists and leaving them,” she said. “They’re working with more brands, and they’re looking to innovate. They know today’s customers want storytelling, so they’re letting brands in. And brands know better than to rely too heavily on associates.”

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