In the big business of retail, “authenticity” is starting to become a meaningless buzzword. Executives, marketers and creative agencies like to toss the concept across giant conference tables in hopes of hooking a generation of consumers. Leaders of the world’s biggest retail chains are constantly attempting to connect with shoppers through lower costs and greater convenience, but too many of them are missing the mark on a far more fundamental human need.
What does it really mean to be authentic? For me, it means proudly showcasing my real-life strengths and flaws to the world — and inviting others to deeply know me.
Having spent the last four years growing Pink Lily, a successful e-commerce business, alongside my husband and co-founder Chris, I’ve found authenticity to be integral to our successful accrual of more than $50 million in revenue. We couldn’t have reached this point without prioritizing sincerity, openness and fair dealing with our customers.
Imagine intentionally spending your money with retail leaders who have recognizable faces, children with names and human flaws.
Imagine calling your retailer to ask a question because you know it will be faster, friendlier and easier than digging through online message boards for answers.
Imagine interacting with a brand as it grows over time, offering input and suggestions that are actually adopted and feeling as if you had a hand in the company’s success. These are the realities of shopping with a people-focused retailer, and these are the leading reasons our customers give for staying loyal to us every day.
My experience of growing an e-commerce startup from our living room into a multimillion dollar national business — with all its triumphs, failures and growing pains along the way — has shown me that there will always be an active and vocal market for authentically human small and midsized retail. The Amazons, Walgreens, Krogers and Walmarts of the world will never be able to completely gobble up the customers that keep companies like Pink Lily thriving. This is because the glittery allure of optimal cost and lightning-fast convenience will never be the only factors on the minds of consumers. There always has been and always will be a subset of the population —a growing subset, in my opinion — that spends their money with more intention and care.
These informed, emotionally aware and often affluent consumers want the experience, intimacy and connection of buying from a company of people who feel like they could be their neighbors.
Do you know who Doug McMillon is? Or Brian Cornell? What about Stefano Pessina, Rodney McMullen or Larry Merlo? Perhaps one or two of these names ring a faint bell, but I doubt you feel any connection to these people. Yet they’re the CEOs of some of the world’s largest and richest retailers, generating billions upon billions in sales and revenue annually.
If you do recognize some of them, do you know anything about their family lives? What philanthropies they’re passionate about? What drives them to do what they do? And could you ever hope to reach them to share a comment, offer a suggestion or ask a question?
In today’s culture of faceless, automated online shopping, there’s a genuine hunger for real person-to-person connection. When I post to Instagram about my trip to the grocery store with my children, joke around with the community in social media comments, or poll our Facebook followers for input on a new product line, I’m inviting my current and prospective customers into my life. I’m inviting them to connect with me not just as a CEO, but as a fellow human being.
I do this because I know that there’s no real difference between me and my customers. Like me, they’re just people who are trying their best to make their ways in the world. They’re parents, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends. By recognizing their humanity and calling out to them through a multitude of channels, Pink Lily leaders and employees are fulfilling a need unmet by the giant retail conglomerates.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I shop with the big boys and enjoy the benefits of cost savings and optimal convenience as much as the next person. I’m not arguing that there’s no place for big retail. I’m merely stating that our collective fear around the super-size growth of these corporations, and the potential collapse of small and family-owned companies, is most certainly in vain. Cost and convenience will never entirely trump authenticity, and true authenticity is only achievable when a business is kept to a manageable size. Let’s face it, when a company grows so large and complex that its senior leadership resembles a small army, that organization has undoubtedly lost intimate contact with its customer base.
In light of this reality, I urge all business owners to remember that consumers aren’t line items in an economic equation. They’re living, breathing human beings with needs, feelings and thoughts. No matter how technologically advanced and sophisticated we become, there will always be a powerful market for organizations that value the person inside the consumer.
Tori Gerbig is the co-founder of Pink Lily, a women’s fashion brand.