BrainTrust Query: In Pursuit of Shopper Relevance, A-List Merchants Shine as ‘Curators’

Apr 21, 2011
James Tenser

The theme
at this year’s Global Retailing Conference was “Inspiring Innovation,” and
while the speakers addressed this from various perspectives, one striking parallel
emerged in their remarks: the modern merchant’s role as curator who delivers
added value to shoppers. 

“Curating great product is certainly something we are all about,” Michael
George, CEO of QVC, told the gathering of 400 retail leaders in Tucson, AZ. “We
view ourselves as a trusted editor of product assortment.”

Susan Lyne,
chairman of flash-sale fashion website Gilt Groupe, added, “We
sell coveted goods and experiences that are simple, fast, fun.” Her firm’s
interactions with shoppers are highly personalized, she said, beginning with
careful item selection and manifest through the daily emails that deliver a
unique mix of offers to each member.

“It is curation — we’re not about selling everything; we’re
about selling great things,” Ms. Lyne said.

Curation in merchandising
is a provocative notion, borrowed (I think) from web culture and blog-aggregators
like the Huffington Post and Drudge
It refers to the value-added service provided when professionals take on the
responsibility of selecting content for the benefit of the visitor.’

dictionaries boil down the definition of curator to “one who
cares,” but
we most often associate the term with the person in charge of a museum or a
collection. But why not a store — or a blog — or a product design

Martha Stewart described her firm, which employs some 500 people at
its New York headquarters, workshops and design center, as “a creative
think tank for living,” where the team identifies lifestyle artifacts,
interprets them, and reproduces them for the broad group of shoppers at Macy’s
and Home Depot.

“We [the team at Martha Stewart Living] really are our best customers
and our best editors,” she said. “We are always looking and trying
to really center on our interests. So the products that we have at the Home
Depot — those
are all products that we need and want.”

Crate & Barrel is perhaps
a bit less inward-focused in editing its assortment but it too takes its role
as a lifestyle guide seriously, according to Barbara Turf, CEO and president. “We
are relevant at Crate & Barrel when
we become one of the top two emotional choices for customers who are shopping
our categories.”

Here’s further evidence that the mechanisms of
online retailing and the web have penetrated and influenced merchandising. uses a healthy dose of technology to present a personalized mix
of product to online shoppers, said Raul Vasquez, its EVP global e-commerce
development. Could we consider this methodology to be a form of automated curation?

relevance, curation — not to mention a bit of personalization
and targeting — listening to these talented retail executives convinced
me that these code words have become central to the modern merchandiser’s
vernacular. They define a discipline that transforms mere quality into superlative
value. Curation, you might say, is king.

Discussion Questions: How well does the concept of curation fit with the traditional role of merchant or the more modern role of the shopper marketer?  How does it manifest in terms of assortment, strategy, shopper relevance? Is curation relevant to your daily business priorities?

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16 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: In Pursuit of Shopper Relevance, A-List Merchants Shine as ‘Curators’"

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Anne Howe
10 years 21 days ago

I believe both the concept and great execution of deploying curators in retail merchandising is long overdue in many categories. Lifestyle curation helps shoppers overcome the fear of doing it wrong. Fear of doing it wrong can often lead to not doing it all, and that’s not what we need in retail today. A confidence cue for shoppers can tip them into buying mode and is especially important today in many categories where style makes a difference.

That said, a curation strategy could be deployed with more visual impact in food retailers as well, especially when it comes to meal solutions. Here’s a good example of an opportunity to improve curation and display signage that is just plain under-baked in its environment today.

Even the products on this endcap could be clustered in a curated way to match the recipe, right? Sometimes style + good editing is much more intriguing to the shopper than soldier-like rows of SKU sameness at the shelf.

Max Goldberg
10 years 21 days ago

It’s very interesting that two of the retailers quoted do not operate physical stores. Don’t all retailers curate what’s in their stores? Don’t they all look at their target customer and offer products that fit her/his lifestyle? Haven’t they done this for years? So what’s the big deal about curation?

Ryan Mathews
10 years 21 days ago

All merchants are curators to a degree, in the same way that all buyers are “assortment editors of inventory.”

One of the most basic roles of all retailers is to select goods for sale or resale and just as a great curator adds significant value to an art show or museum by selecting certain elements, combining them in a certain way and providing a narrative line to communicate to an audience, so great retailers go beyond product assortment to effective merchandising and telling a story to a customer base they have studied and know well and understand.

Lee Peterson
10 years 21 days ago

Sounds like jargon to me. Lo and behold, a new way to say, “putting the right thing in the right place at the right time”–the ancient merchant creed. If for some reason the aforementioned merchants weren’t thinking of being the ‘curators’ of their inventory, perhaps this is a good way to center them, but otherwise, I’d hope that we could dispense with the BS and simply make retail more exciting for the customers. THAT…is ultimately their job.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 21 days ago

I fully agree with James although, if I had to pick just one, I would go with “relevance” instead of curation since relevance is an end-goal whereas curation is a methodology.

This “googlesque” thinking has become pervasive in web technology, and not just in retail. Don’t just show me search results, show me search results that are relevant to me (based on my interests, friends, prior search history, etc…). The same logic naturally applies to e-commerce. If you have purchased a new bike, you may want to purchase a helmet. If several of your friends are interested in bikes, you are more likely to be interested in bikes yourself.

Relevance turns “noise” into “signal” (credit to

This thinking applies to retailers and retail vendors alike. For example, we have applied this very thinking to our product ( narrowcasting. Unlike broadcasting, narrowcasting uses semantic tagging to allow customers to target specific stores with specific Compliantia forms. Narrowcasting creates relevance which saves time and increase user-satisfaction.

Dick Seesel
10 years 21 days ago

I agree with the other panelists that the idea of curation as “selecting content for the benefit of the visitor” is the fundamental job of any merchant. Whether in a bricks-and-mortar or virtual storefront (or both), retailers are responsible for offering thoughtfully edited assortments aimed at their core and targeted consumers. So there is an element of new-speak in the concept of “curation,” but if the idea returns retailers’ focus onto the products they offer as the heart of the business, so much the better. No amount of design sophistication, cost-cutting or other strategies can disguise the lack of a pointed assortment.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
10 years 21 days ago

There certainly is an analog between museums and retail assortments today–presentations of artifacts that people look at but neither touch nor buy.

That sarcasm aside (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the concept of a curator is an apt description of a great merchant – someone with a broad and deep expertise of their product category who has a passion for the products and presents them in a way to produce a positive emotional reaction by the target audience. Mickey Drexler comes to mind, along with Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs. Each of these individuals have established a strong emotional connection with their customers and are handsomely rewarded for it.

The additional element that is different between a curator and a great merchant is an understanding of the target customer that is as deep as their understanding of the product along with an equivalent skill in anticipating not only what they will want today, but tomorrow as well. Having a great understanding of the product but not the target customer simply doesn’t work.

Gene Detroyer
10 years 21 days ago

There are two different issues in the article. The first is the retailer as curator. The retailer has always been a curator. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. The decision of Macy’s or Home Depot carrying Martha Stewart is acting as a curator. It is not different than the decision made 50 years ago that Macy’s carry certain furniture lines or labels of clothing.

The other discussion is the flash-sale websites. They provide a slightly different curative service. They focus on weeding through what is available and deciding what their time-starved, online-savvy clientele should buy. And, their time-starved, online savvy clientele (read that Gen X and Y) are responding, “Great, I don’t have to make fashion or activity decisions. Gilt is doing the shopping for me.”

Matthew Keylock
Matthew Keylock
10 years 21 days ago
Great discussion. I agree that curation is about achieving relevance and that relevance is what the business should strive for. Too often the focus of curation is financially driven rather than driven by customer needs. This is further compounded by an organization that is structured around product groups. Too often customer needs are not well understood or executed across different categories. In many cases the only data and information available for decision making are financial ones and “gut-feel,” and the only incentives are category level financial goals that ignore the value of the customer across the store. As customer needs and missions have become even more sophisticated and complicated for businesses to understand, this has become harder. Online retail represents an opportunity to be much more flexible in the curation process. It is possible to customize the entire experience for an individual in a way that is not possible in a static store. Achieving relevance is key for survival in online and bricks and mortar stores. In both cases it is founded on a brilliant… Read more »
Carol Spieckerman
10 years 21 days ago

A topic close to my heart, Jamie! Much to my grammarian mother’s initial dismay, we called ourselves “curators” (content, insight) before curating was cool (since our firm’s inception over 12 years ago). According to mom, “curation” as it is being used now, isn’t an appropriate use of the root word, and perhaps not a word at all. Besides, will people really “get” the way we are using it? She came from the art world and I grew up stomping around major museums so all forms of the word have energy in the family. She came around recently after seeing how widespread the word has become in retail (at least I was no longer alone in my dubious usage).

Personal back story aside, curating in a museum is about choosing the works that tell a story about a particular artist, period or a movement and placing them in such a way as to engage, educate, showcase, draw attention, and in some cases, provoke. Sounds like shopper marketing to me.

Ralph Jacobson
10 years 21 days ago

Call it a “curator” or a Chief Customer Officer or whatever label the current trend is driving. Bottom line, a retailer does have to “caretake” the shopper who is not yet a customer. Additionally, the consumer, the one who consumes the product requires care taking. This all has to do with the customer lifetime value to the retailer. Attract, capture, maintain. Get the shopper and keep them engaged.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
10 years 20 days ago

Why do we continue to come up with new names for efficient assortment, category management, consumer value, shopper insights, chief customer officer, curation? Knowing your consumers, choosing the products and services that add value for those consumers, communicating with those consumers in a way that adds value are essential activities for any successful business. As Sam Walton said, ‘The consumer is the only one who can fire us.” We need to spend more time doing these activities rather than trying to find new names for basic business tactics.

Herb Sorensen
10 years 20 days ago
“‘It is curation–we’re not about selling everything; we’re about selling great things,’ Ms. Lyne said.” We have subsumed this principle under various titles and foci over the past several years: “Game Changing Retail,” “The Return to ‘Personal Selling’ in a Self-Service World,” “Item Management vis-a-vis Category Management,” etc. With one serious difference. I believe that the best “curators” are the shopper’s own peer group, not the glorified “experts,” although in some cases, such as fine wines, we are relying on the expert image rather than the peer group. I do believe that the “pile it high and let it fly” motif is so deeply engrained in self-service retailing DNA, that only the overwhelming force of online merchants like Amazon MAY convince them that they should move in this direction. But it is a tragedy of lost sales and profits to wait for technology, to implement this in the aisles of the stores. The reality is that if the store will simply tell the shopper, for each category/subcategory, THIS IS THE ITEM THAT MOST SHOPPERS HERE… Read more »
James Tenser
10 years 20 days ago

Viewing the comments so far makes be very glad that I was able to attend and offer this brief report. As most commentators made clear, the conversation about curation should move quickly past terminology to encompass methodology and practice.

Yes. Merchandising in totality and detail should tell a story to shoppers about the retailer’s understanding of her or his needs.

Yes. Peer shoppers are often better-suited than professional merchants to recognize lifestyle interests and needs.

Yes. Merchandising has always been about presenting an orderly, thoughtful and edited selection to valued shoppers.

Yes. Targeting, segmentation, personal media and digital retailing all add new, significant dimensions to this discipline.

And Yes. You should strongly considering attending the 2012 Global Retailing Conference in Tucson next April. The speakers and presenters really were that good.

Bob Phibbs
10 years 20 days ago

Please…Gilt is a “curator.” It’s a discounter of name brands first and foremost. They are “curating” deals….

Kai Clarke
10 years 20 days ago

Everyone at retail curates to a degree. The key to successful retailing is managing the product presentation, consumer direction, and production differentiation including price, performance, place and promotion…oh yeah, curating fits directly into this as an integral part of the retail model.


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