Melinda Davis and Glen Senk: Do You Offer Your Customers What They Really Want?

Melinda Davis and Glen Senk: Do You Offer Your Customers What They Really Want?

Melinda Davis is author of The Culture of Desire and is founder and CEO of the Next Group. Glen Senk is president of Anthropologie, a $200-million retail business. Here is a rough transcript of their conversation with Fast Company Senior Editor Polly LaBarre:

Melinda Davis: What I want to do is spend 10 minutes to give you a brief, really quick introduction to the Human Desire Project, which is a big part of my business these days. And I think it's a big part of your business, too. We started the Human Desire Project in 1996. We wanted to understand what products and services people would want to buy in t he future. It was very marketing oriented. Then we discovered that not only are we all correct when we instinctively feel that our lives and businesses are different. We also discovered that we're part of this amazing transition point in history.

When I talk about how this changes business, I don't think that business is ever going to go back the way it was. Are you hip to transhumanism? The Human Desire Project came to the conclusion that what we've done to the world has changed us to the extent that the survival instinct itself has changed. All of these things have taken us from the physical world. The things we're hardwired to deal with are no longer the things we deal with. We need to catch up in terms of evolution to be able to deal with all the things that take place in the mind.

In the old days our primal desire was to survive in the physical world. I don't want to die and let's have sex. Now it's all in the mind. I don't want to go crazy. Let's get in the zone. Bliss has become the bottom line. That means that the marketer has to change. We switched around the '50s when the television came in. Marketers became entertainers. The next evolution of the marketers' business is to consider the marketer as healer. That can be controversial.

The first concept is that of pleasure healing. Storytelling is important. The second concept is Yoda-ism. We feel very uneasy. We're all in a state of mind emergency. We're looking for Yoda characters who can explain things to us. Saturday I spent two hours at Anthropologie. Glen has put his business directly in the center of all these things. He's making myth. He's into storytelling. And he's become very much a Yoda in what the new marketing should be.

Polly LaBarre: Anthropologie solves many of the identity problems that arise during shopping. You can shop without feeling like an SUV-driving, gold card-wielding suburbanite. You can buy into the latest fashion without feeling like a fashion victim. It's a store in which you feel understood. When you get to what does Anthropologie sell, let's look at what they don't sell. They don't sell the thing of the moment. They sell originality. They sell adventure. Glen, what is your key point of difference and distinction?

Glen Senk: We're customer experts rather than category experts. In the last 20 years, there's been a real bifurcation in the retail business. The low end is doing really well. And the high end is doing well. It's kind of the middle that's falling through. The year 2000 was the death of the department store. There are still category experts such as Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel. We've decided to be customer experts. We're going to identify our ideal customer and do anything we can to meet their needs and desires. They are largely time starved. So we do a lot of pre-editing for them.

Polly: Who is this customer, and why does she pose a challenge for other retailers?

Glen: If you don't know your customer in the mail-order business, you've lost your support. We really know our customers. I get down and kiss the ground that they walk on. They are just delightful people. Melinda touched on this. People have a real need for individuality. We try to cater to that.

Melinda: Glen, can I say that you're a genius? And can we see some pictures? We do a lot of work with neurophysiologists to learn about storytelling and what your body does as you move through different spaces.

Polly: And even though the stores are unique, it's not haphazard. They are designed.

Glen: Each store's management team impacts the layout of that store. We have 51 stores. The store is a various sensorial experience. It has a smell. It's very tactile. We're very careful about what music we play. We also focus on display and concentrate on narrative.

Polly: When it comes to connecting with customers today, it seems that plain old selling doesn't cut it. You've got to emote. You've got to connect. What is that shift. Are retailers the new philosophers?

Melinda: It means connecting with people ate a very different level. The most successful marketers are the marketers that show customers that they live on the same planet.

Polly: A lot of design and retail seems to be about entertainment. You go into Anthropologie and there's a lot there. How do you organize it so it feels like a mini-vacation?

Glen: We're in business and we're here to make money, but we're not mercenary. We really are here to serve people. We're passionate about our products and the design of the stores. I think our customers can sense that. The culture of a retail company is the feel of the floor. After 911, our business came back faster -- in a matter of weeks. And I think that's because our stores are like a community. They're a place to connect. Every store has at least two artists in it who works full time just to create art.

Polly: Could you two talk about your process for getting to the product? What is your process?

Melinda: I'll talk about how we do it from a macro point of view. There are cosmic convergences in the new world. To know what's coming, you don't look into a crystal ball, you ask people. We do think tanks. And we look for convergences. You can identify the big desires behind trends.

Glen: Our process isn't very dissimilar. We get more specific than you do, but the thing that impresses me about Melinda is that she's not one of these omniscient people who says the color is blue. You bring together talented people and listen to them. It can be painful. Don't let yourself get in the way. Don't let the press get in the way. Get close to your customer.

Melinda: I look at the Gap like I look at Chairman Mao. People want to be independent. Glen gives people that sense of discovery. It's like going to a flea market. You leave, and you say to yourself, "God, I have good taste."

Glen: In the first store, we had a lot of antiques that we used as fixtures. One of our customers said, "I'd like to buy that." The manager said, "Oh, you can't buy that. It's just a prop." How often does that happen? Every day? Let's start selling the props. Let's use the found objects to lend authenticity to the place.

Melinda: it's one of the few places left that retains the thrill of the chase. We've lost the thrill of the chase.

Polly: It reminds me of something my mom used to say, "Shop like a French woman." Let's talk about the women you sell to. This isn't about chicks and clicking with chicks. In many ways, Anthropologie has figured out that women lead complex lives that don't really fit into categories. How do you keep this in mind?

Glen: We think of them as individuals. We have professional women. I just can't categorize them. We have a variety of women. I don't know if you're being sarcastic, but women drive the retail business.

Melinda: Everyone is crazy in some little way, and shopping is one of the ways we can deal with these little crazinesses. In order to survive, you have to develop multiple personalities. It's no longer a diagnosis. It's aspirational. Understanding your consumer is understanding that the person who comes in is a whole bunch of people all at once. You have to be able to accommodate multiple personalities in all of your customers. Women are genetically better equipped to deal with all of the craziness that's going on. With my clients, the women get it pretty quickly. The men have to take a little longer.

Polly: Let's talk about brands. Both of you have different perspectives on how brands become organizing principles. What's your world view?

Glen: A healthy respect for individuality. High touch instead of high tech. Intelligent. Honest. Passionate. Artful. Nice. A respect for technology.

Polly: When you made the decision to concentrate on one customer, you decided not to dictate the lifestyle. Melinda, describe how this falls into your vision of the super brand.

Melinda: I believe that brands as we know them now will be dead in 10 years. The original purpose of the brand was to make choice easier. You could edit out all the choices of your life by choosing the brand. Now there are too many brands and too many features. We're inundated. We want less messages. We're looking for people to choose for us. Instead of there being so many brands out there, I think there are going to be a few select brands that become reality filters. Richard Branson is kind of the Yoda for alternative commercial hip. If you consider yourself as part of that Yoda brand, look at the products he has. We'll still have a lot of changes, but instead of finding Anthropologie on my own, maybe I find it through a mediator who's helping heal my mind crisis.

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