The New Retail Therapy

Nordstrom is bringing new meaning to the concept of retail therapy. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, retail therapy is shopping with a purpose; when you are feeling forlorn, out of sorts, like the world is not giving you what you need and want you go shopping. Shopping satisfies the “I am important, valued and beautiful” and gets you engaged in looking, trying on and excessive self-reflection. Well Nordstrom has created retail therapy 2.0. Now you can go shopping and make the world a better place. This may be the perfect combination – self-interest that improves the world.

Nordstrom has launched its new Manhattan store – Treasure and Bond. A smaller footprint, these stores will contribute their profit to charities, more specifically children’s charities. People will be able to follow how much is actually contributed on the web site, and will be able to see which charities are receiving funds, as they will change every three months.

Viewed as an “incubator”, product and service ideas that work at Treasure and Bond may be transferred to the for-profit Nordstrom stores. Conceived by Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and, according to the report in the New York Times (August 16th, 2011), a New York philanthropist, Catherine Marron, Nordstrom’s charity store certainly extends and improves upon the typical cause marketing we are used to seeing from other retailers.

This is “retail with a purpose”, and reflects a more serious commitment to truly making a difference to a social cause. First is the financial commitment: Treasure and Bond is not expected to contribute to the parent company’s financial bottom line. What the parent company understands is that this approach will win our respect not only because of the qualitatively more serious commitment, but also because Treasure and Bond will make it easier for us to do good while we purchase. They allow us to do good while exercising our self-interest.

It is true that the Treasure and Bond (note, we will treasure the goods and the purpose which will drive our bonding) has borrowed a model used by a number of global charitable organizations, perhaps most notably Oxfam. Marrying the model of selling products and using revenue to support social projects with a leading brand tells us at least two things.

First, that retailers are finally seeing the power they have to drive purchase and social good. Moving beyond the conventional approaches of momentary cause marketing, where retailers contribute percentage of sales on a given day, or offer charity-designated clothing where percentage of profits go to that charity (think Livestrong, or Red), Treasure and Bond is committing the entire business model and saying we will contribute all “profit”. This challenges the retail world to stand up and be more genuine in their commitments.

And this reflects the company’s knowledge that we are savvy consumers and smell the disingenuousness of cause marketing. The conventional alignment of brand and cause does nothing to alter our perception, awareness or respect of either. We experience conventional approaches as part of the marketing mix, not as a serious or honest commitment to making the world a better place. Treasure and Bond’s commitment will contribute significant financial contributions and to a focused area – enabling the company to potentially make a real difference.

Was this expected or anticipated? Certainly there are numerous retailers that assert a social purpose or connection. Kenneth Cole for example has been an ardent, and edgy supporter of social causes. Aldo has been a long-term supporter of HIV/AIDS programs. Macy’s supports a number of social causes, often linked to the holiday calendar. Nike is partnered with Livestrong; Roots with Right to Play. And the somewhat faded stalwarts of The Body Shop and Benetton were early supporters – and spokes-entities – for social causes.

Nordstrom has had a commitment to being an “ethical” company and one that “incorporates social responsibility across all aspects of our business and everything we do” since they began in Seattle. Nordstrom Cares is their social responsibility arm, and has been doing interesting things in environmental sustainability, contributing to programs that support minority communities, improving the skills and knowledge of their employees. It still however comes as surprise that would create a new retail line of business devoted to supporting children’s causes.

Because like so many companies, they have been relatively silent about their activities. Not wanting to be experienced as self-serving, or cautious about the authenticity and thoroughness of their commitments, companies that are doing good-to-great things in terms of social sustainability typically do not let us know. Treasure and Bond creates a new standard of action and communications.

We are swayed by evidence and experience. Treasure and Bond will have the evidence of real contributions and real effort to earn our respect. And we individually will have the personal experience of knowing that when we are shopping we are contributing to that real difference. We can not only shop guilt free, we can know we are doing good while shopping.

And just in case you think these are the words of a singular proponent of shopping for good, Hope Logan of the globally famous daytime series, The Bold and the Beautiful, proclaimed this past week during the launch of her new fashion line – HOPE – that “we are defined not only by the clothes we wear, but by the beliefs that we share” and her new clothing line is about “raising the standards of social and sexual responsibility”. Perhaps if the marketing experts can cross-pollinate, we might see the HOPE line in the new Treasure and Bond store.