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6 Things Star Wars Can Teach Retailers

The Force awakened with a vengeance last month. Millions of fans worldwide lined up in droves for what some described as an almost sacred experience (for some German churchgoers, it literally was). The Force is strong, the hype is huge and the reviews are breathless.

I joined the masses at my local theater, eager to be among the first to know what had awakened the Force and what the implications were for a galaxy far, far away. After my second viewing, I realized – naturally – that there are lots of lessons retailers can take from the Star Wars phenomenon.

1. Embrace emotion:

The Force is about tapping into emotion. The Dark Side feeds on anger, fear, aggression. The Light Side feeds on courage, love, and honor. This can lead to decisions that are irrational, like Luke’s daring to confront Vader, trying to reclaim him from the Dark Side. Or our heroes in this latest installment making hard choices in the service of redeeming lost loved ones. Purely rational decision-making would have led to completely different actions. Retail customers are the same – they may say that their decisions are purely rational, but most of their decisions are made emotionally.

Outside the film’s created universe, the movies themselves also tap into the power of shared emotion. Having only seen its precursors on the small screen, I was fascinated to watch the The Force Awakens in a full theater with a live audience. There were shared cheers, gasps and even sobs. Audience members were clearly making significant emotional connections with characters on the screen. John Williams's majestic score further heightened the emotional impact.

The lesson for retailers here? Engage the emotional side of your customers to drive them to action.

2. Help your customers find the Force within:

Luke Skywalker started off as a restless youth bored with life on his uncle’s Tattooine farm, longing for adventure. Obi-Wan saw more in him and helped him discover his purpose. Yoda, despite his initial doubts did the same, until Luke himself came to realize his potential as a Jedi knight. Now, after their own unexpected turns of events, our new heroes Finn and Rey also have to discover what lies within.

As customers go about their daily lives, even quotidian tasks like buying eggs and milk or a new pair of sneakers fit into a broader context. Customers have things they are trying to achieve and problems they are trying to solve. Smart retailers support them in solving those problems. Buying cleaning products? Help them feel good about maintaining a beautiful and healthy home. Diet shakes? Help them lead a healthy lifestyle so they can be fit for their daughter’s wedding … or maybe, just look hot in their new Jedi costume.

Use the broader context of what customers are trying to achieve in their lives to help them be the best version of themselves.

3. Engineer for flexible innovation:

BB-8, the latest droid delight in the Star Wars universe, follows in R2-D2’s footsteps as an adaptable, multifunctional robotic wingman. Need a convenient secret message storage compartment? Versatile grappling hook? On-demand projector? Nifty, painful electric shock zapper? These droids have them all. And BB-8’s rolling ball action makes him even faster and more nimble than his predecessors.

Versatility has been engineered into the droids by design - they are built to be flexible. Many a retailer would benefit from such an approach when it comes to their systems architecture. Too many modern retailers are encumbered by monolithic legacy systems, which hampers their efforts to respond rapidly to dynamic market conditions and changing customer needs. A technology architecture that is more modular and functionally nimble can better support retailers’ modern ambitions. New concept store, B8ta is taking some of the first steps to demonstrate what it might look like when retailers embrace the full potential of the internet of things and embed new approaches to store technology in a brick and mortar environment.

Design your service models, and the supporting technical architecture, to be responsive and adaptable - take advantage of rapidly evolving technologies to exceed increasingly demanding customer expectations.

4. Build human connection:

Read the stories of true Star Wars fans as they share them online or listen to them as they wait in line for any of their multiple viewings of the film. They talk about the first time they saw the original Star Wars with their friends. Or their parents. Or when they introduced their young kids to episodes IV to VI for the first time. Listen to the excitement and passion stirred up by those memories. It’s partly about the magic of the movie, but it is as much about the shared experiences and share memories the movie creates. These memories are strengthened and a sense of community is further reinforced with every online forum, movie marathon or convention.

Disney has perfected the art of creating shared customer experiences and building community to drive retail success. But so have retailers like Lululemon, with its hordes of Lulu addicts.

Find ways to let customers connect with each other and create shared community around your products and services.

5. Form smart alliances (think co-creation):

The rebels are a motley lot, brought together from planets across the galaxy with a common goal (originally, to defeat the Empire; now, to prevent the rise of the First Order). A shared passion fuels their epic mission (and many excellent interstellar battles).

Speaking of shared passions, Google Star Wars fan fiction and you get more than 12 million results. Not only are fans writing their own stories based on the beloved characters, but they are making their own costumes, building their own droids, making parodies aplenty and shooting their own short films.

Rather than discourage this (as if that were even possible), the franchise owners have embraced the fans’ love and encourage their creativity, with fan film competitions, art contests and more. Starbucks similarly has been using customer co-creation to tap into creative ideas from its biggest fans with mystarbucksidea.com for many years. Domino’s Australia has done the same with its Pizza Mogul program.

Encourage your most loyal customers’ fan-dom with opportunities to share their experiences. Use co-creation to recruit new fans and strengthen their loyalty.

6. Embrace the power of story:

Those who are responding most positively to the latest epic in the Star Wars anthology are praising it because it feels new but familiar. Those who hated it complain that it feels too familiar. And with reason: Rey’s and Finn’s stories – like that of Luke (and Han) before them – follow a classic arc. Hero is going about life as normal in his (or her) world, is faced with a challenge, initially resists, battles a foe, overcomes challenge, emerges victorious and is changed by the experience. It’s a story of the ages.

Humans have used stories for years. Emotion, action and myth are invaluable for attention-keeping, sense-making and lesson-sharing. We are hard wired to respond to stories. Not every retailer needs to take it to the extremes of the New York store Story, which features a new theme every eight weeks, but you too can use story to create engaging customer experiences and drive sales. Build product bundles around solutions, and use smart merchandising to bring stories into the retail space.

Use story to inspire customers and convert them from browsers to buyers.

One need not be a Jedi Master to put these ideas into practice, but having a trustworthy guide along the way certainly helps. Check out the work we do with retail clients here. As Yoda might say, "Traditional retail models, we are rethinking."

And may the Force be with you.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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