wrapped presents stacked up
A wide variety of retailers are finding that gifts that tell their own stories can capture shoppers' attention, create more value and, as a result, fuel sales this holiday season. — Getty Images/Sarsmis

No doubt deals, door busters and deep discounts will help drive retail sales this holiday season.

But merchants are also betting on content and curation to ease and enhance the shopping experience and stoke the spending impulses of today’s consumers — who have the world’s online mall at their fingertips, retail CEOs and founders told CO—.

It’s why this holiday selling season, Kohl’s is playing fashion stylist with get-this-look Outfit Bars that seem ripped from the pages of a magazine, while Italian food marketplace Eataly romances white truffles with museum-like displays that tell the tale of this rare, $195-per-ounce luxury mushroom.

And it explains why the word “storytelling” popped up in conversations with merchants as wide-ranging as Kohl’s, Eataly, digital native menswear brand UNTUCKit, subscription box service FabFitFun, and newbie experiential store CAMP.

These retailers are banking on the premise that gifts wrapped in a compelling story can capture the fragmented attention of digitally fatigued shoppers, impart items with heightened value and, in turn, fuel sales.

 outfit bar display at kohl's
The Outfit Bar at Kohl's is one of the ways the retailer is aiming to engage with customers via curated concepts in its stores. — Kohl's

‘It can’t just be same old, same old’

Michelle Gass, CEO, Kohl’s

“Every year we look at the holiday opportunity as a way to drive sales and engage with customers,” Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s, told CO— at the retailer’s holiday preview event in New York City. “You have to be new every year, it can’t just be same old, same old.”

She noted the shorter time period between Black Friday and Christmas, which is pressuring all retailers to maximize the gift-giving bonanza in fewer days. “When we had the same calendar in 2013, we had a strong holiday period, but that was several years ago and the market has changed significantly,” Gass said. Also, the customer has so many choices today. So, if they’re going to spend time with you, you better make it worth their while, she said.

Hence, Kohl’s seasonal story reflects a bold push to “elevate” the shopping experience, Gass said. It’s why new curated concepts like Curated by Kohl’s and Beauty Checkout are bowing in select stores and on Kohls.com, she said, which are designed to give customers new ways to discover gifts from emerging brands like Adore Me lingerie and Evolution_18, Bobbi Brown’s “clean” line of beauty supplements. In addition, Kohl’s Outfit Bar offers shoppers a curated assortment of what the retailer considers “millennial-loved brands,” such as LC Lauren Conrad, POPSUGAR and adidas.

The department store is also betting on a record number of new and exclusive brand launches during the holiday season to boost business, including Elizabeth and James, a minimalist-chic apparel line designed by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen; Scott Living, an exclusive home collection from Property Brothers’ Jonathan and Drew Scott; a limited-edition apparel collection from designer Jason Wu that’s inspired by old-Hollywood glamour; and a pet line from Ellen DeGeneres.

 display at eataly holiday market
One of the goals behind Eataly's holiday display is to bring the Italian notion of gifting specialty, high-value culinary delicacies to U.S. shoppers. — Eataly

Touting tony truffles and Barolo wine as the ‘perfect gift’

Nicola Farinetti, Global CEO of Eataly

Italian marketplace Eataly, founded in Turin in 2007, aims to demystify the value of high-quality food for an American audience. That push kicks into overdrive during the holiday season. “It’s about explaining and convincing people that they need to invest more money into what you put into your body than what you put outside of your body,” Nicola Farinetti, Global CEO of Eataly, told CO—. The notion is embraced in Italy, where unlike the U.S., it’s common to give food as a gift he said. The reality is that “food is a perfect gift,” he said. “It shows people that you really care.”

Storytelling, he said, is essential to illuminating the value of high-end, specialty food in its U.S. stores.

The season’s gift-giving experience runs throughout Eataly’s retail/restaurant emporium and in a new shop patterned after a “mercatino,” a traditional Italian local street market, where Muzzi panettone, white truffles and Barolo wine play starring roles in its holiday tale — and are key to driving business, Farinetti said.

The classic Northern Italian panettone cake was once rarefied and expensive in the U.S. market. “Now it’s known and appreciated,” he said. “We like to think we put it on the map.”

It’s looking to do the same with truffles this holiday by fetting the culinary delicacy with “truffle days” in its marketplace and restaurants, special menus, complimentary tastings, educational events and an opportunity for shoppers to buy truffles, which are pricey, at cost, Farinetti said.

“This was born as a moment of storytelling,” he said. "Truffles are very difficult to find, and they're one of the few things in the entire world that humans don’t know yet how to replicate.” Eataly is going to great lengths to tell the truffle story because if the consumer doesn’t grasp their specialness, “they’re never going to try it,” Farinetti said, much less shell out nearly $200 an ounce for it.

What's more, Barolo from the Piemonte region in Northwestern Italy — “the wine of kings and one of the best wines of the world,” Farinetti says — is another big theme this holiday at Eataly. For one, “where the product comes from is extremely important.” Piemonte is the only region in the entire world, that “for some magical reason, produces Barolo wine in only 11 villages.” In the end, “the customer comes to Eataly to tell the story of food,” he said.

As people born and raised into a food culture, Farinetti said, “we are discovering that the American consumer is finally coming to the same table with the same questions, curiosity and willingness to learn about food, and the same result, which is to be happier and healthier.”

 person opening fabfitfun winter box
To break out of its e-commerce barriers and connect with customers, FabFitFun has begun sharing aspects of its products like smell and feel through Facebook Live and broadcast TV. — FabFitFun

Storytelling ‘is a real driver of conversion’

Katie Rosen Kitchens, co-founder and editor-in-chief, FabFitFun

For subscription service FabFitFun, storytelling is not merely warm-and-fuzzy, serve-the-consumer business speak. Telling the tales of the founders behind the brands in its $49 boxes of full-sized beauty, fashion, wellness and tech products is critical to generating a return on investment — particularly during the holidays, Katie Rosen Kitchens, co-founder, said during a meeting with CO—. That comes as little surprise for a company that began life as a magazine and then morphed into retail, said Kitchens, who also serves as editor in chief.

This winter season, FabFitFun is telling stories in surround sound with its first-ever holiday broadcast TV ads; via its signature Facebook live “founder chats”; live TV shopping with content Kitchens describes as “QVC meets a mini MasterClass”; and a winter box “with the most badass founders we’ve ever had in a box,” she said.

These include gifts from Rebecca Minkoff, whose beanie hat and arm warmer set is valued at $70; Kate Somerville’s Goat Milk moisturizing cream, which retails for $65; and Jonathan Adler’s Fleur de Sel ceramic candle, at a $48 full price.

As an e-commerce business, “there’s only so such much you can get from a picture and a small description,” Kitchens said. That’s why FabFitFun is looking to video to bring the merchandise to life in a way that e-commerce can’t, as founders share what an item feels and smells like, the inspiration behind a product, and offer insider tips — from “making a great salad to how to clean your jeans well,” she said. All told, “That’s a real driver of [sales] conversion,” she said, as are television ads, which it started testing this year. “We’ll continue to lean into TV during the holidays, because that’s been surprisingly successful.”

You have to be new every year, it can’t just be same old, same old.

Michelle Gass, CEO, Kohl’s

Tell a story

Successful 'storytelling' has become a necessity to grow a business. Read on for our best content marketing tips, to ensure your business can engage with customers and rise against the competition.

 childrens' play area at CAMP
CAMP aims to have its customers linger in its stores with a blend of both merchandise and immersive family activities — from play spaces to Santa's workshop. — CAMP

Blending the ‘utility of a store’ with ‘ToyLab-themed ‘entertainment’

Ben Kaufman, co-founder and CEO, CAMP

For the holiday season, CAMP, the buzzy, modern-day general store founded by ex-Buzzfeed chief marketing officer Ben Kaufman that features revolving themes from camping to cooking, has transformed its New York City store into a ToyLab, in partnership with media tech company, eko.

To drive business year-round and during the holidays, CAMP, which blends the “utility of a store with entertainment,” aims to get shoppers, who spend 90 minutes on average in its store, to linger, Kaufman told CO— during a walk-through of the Flatiron store in Manhattan.

The pièce de résistance of the family experience store sits behind a “secret door” that leads to merchandise and immersive activities, where both kids and adults, with events like karaoke night, play for free year-round.

CAMP’s holiday toy story unfolds in the 10,000-square-foot play-and-shop space where children can test-drive toys in themed testing labs, from a game room with nostalgic games to Santa’s Workshop featuring gifts for the whole family, guided by a heavily staffed crew of “CAMP counselors.” ToyLab-themed activities at an in-store CAMPitheater include paper Christmas tree making and letter writing to Santa.

According to Kaufmann, key holiday items for CAMP, whose mix skews less traditional than mainstream merchants, include products “with a head-fake,” like a stuffed animal that turns into a hoodie; L.O.L. Surprise toys, whereby kids unbox surprise dolls; and Mattel’s gender-neutral Creatable World customized dolls, designed to give children a blank canvas to create their own characters, unshackled by spoon-fed gender tropes.

CAMP is less focused less on battling for sales; instead, “we’re fighting for people’s time,” he said.

 screen shot of UNTUCKit website for holiday 2019
For customer convenience, especially those that are shopping for someone else, UNTUCKit takes the guesswork out of shopping by highlighting its bestsellers and special products. — UNTUCKit

‘We always try to recommend our best sellers’

Chris Riccobono, co-founder, UNTUCKit

Based on fall business trends, digital-first brand UNTUCKit, which now boasts 80 stores in the U.S. and Canada and is opening in London, expects a robust holiday selling season, Chris Riccobono, co-founder, told CO—.

“October and November are often great indicators for how customers will shop with us through the holidays, and they were great this year. We of course take the steps to prepare for the extra traffic we expect by hiring extra employees to assist customers in-store and online, making sure stores are inventoried appropriately, but we also place an emphasis on how we merchandise our retail spaces,” he said.

UNTUCKit says it’s taking the guesswork out of the gift-giving experience for shoppers by highlighting top-selling fare and reliable favorites, like its $99 wrinkle-free performance shirts and its popular “supersoft” flannels from $89 to $109.

“We know a lot of our customers are shopping for gifts they'll be giving to someone else, so we always try to recommend our bestsellers and most special products that we know everyone will love,” Riccobono said. “The holidays are just like the rest of the year — it's about creating a seamless experience for customers.”

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