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Now more than ever, the retail game is a tricky one. Online retail has shaken brick-and-mortar to its very foundation. People shop more on price when all products seem to be the same. It’s harder to stand out in an overcrowded marketplace.

While innovation and unique customer experiences are what attract customers, it’s the follow-through and subsequent relationship that really matters. Your best customer is your existing happy customer. 

If you’re not familiar with Bonobos, the brand’s unique selling proposition is its Guideshops. Make an appointment at one of these exclusive retail locations, and you’ll get a one-on-one shopping consultation with a “shopping ninja.” You’ll be pampered and cooed over while you find the perfect clothing. Then you leave...without your purchases. They are, instead, shipped to your home or office.

Bonobos, a retailer that strives to find the perfect fit for its male clientele, lost me as a customer long before they were acquired by Walmart. Here’s my story. May it serve as a lesson to other retailers in what not to do.

For a short while, I was not only a Bonobos customer. I was an evangelist. 

First-Class In-Person Experience

Eager to experience this unique style of shopping, I made an appointment with a Bonobos shopping ninja. Upon my arrival, he offered me a drink. I selected a beer. All was off to a good start!

I spent over two hours at the Guideshop. I admit: this was the best shopping experience for clothes I have ever had. And it has not been replicated since.

The ninja spent time understanding the way I prefer to dress. He asked about the clothes I currently had in my wardrobe. He was clearly invested in my shopping experience.

He spent time seeing how I looked in the clothes so that he could make suggestions for clothing that would flatter my body. I spent several thousand dollars at the store. Since the model for the brand is to carry no clothing in the store, I ordered online while in the store, and the clothes arrived a few days later.

The clothing I purchased truly did not disappoint.

Then the company made a fatal error. 

Where Bonobos Went Wrong

Whereas I had felt like a treasured customer with the in-store experience, that shifted after I received my order.

I was promptly dumped into Bonobos’ database and started receiving — and still receive — several promotional emails each week. Everything in the emails is on sale, taking away the shine of the brand being exclusive and high end.

And I feel that I overpaid for everything. Now I just feel like one of many, many, many customers. To reiterate, I was happy to pay retail price because of the experience, but finding out that, as an email subscriber, I could have paid a fraction of the price that I did disappointed me immensely.

Bonobos broke my heart when it treated me the same way any old retailer would treat a customer. All they had to do was to have my ninja send me a note inviting me back into the Guideshop for a preview of new style and a wine or bourbon tasting or a meet up with one of the designers. Anything that would give me another awesome shopping experience.

And yet, they went with mass marketing. They robbed me of that feeling of being unique and shuttled me in with the masses.

No one enjoys feeling like that.

How Retailers Can Do Better

Bonobos was at least on the right track with the in-store experience. Experiences are, after all, the new currency in retail. The industry is overcrowded as it is, so anything a brand can do to stand out in its customers’ minds is worth doing.

But you’ve got to have the follow-through.

You can’t treat customers one way in-store (appreciated, pampered, one-of-a-kind) and then another way with subsequent marketing messages. Be consistent. Perhaps Bonobos would have been more successful keeping me loyal if, instead of cheap emails, it had sent high-quality direct mail. A nice envelope with a handwritten address would have caught my attention more than just one of many emails in my inbox.

Personalization is absolutely imperative for high-end and luxury retail. Retail technology actually fosters customized communications these days. Emails can be more attuned to their recipients rather than scatter shot to anyone who’s ever visited a store. Even sending me customized suggestions based on past purchases would have made me feel less anonymous.

It’s unfortunate that Bonobos, in the long run, missed the mark with me. But other retailers should use this cautionary tale to better understand how to gain and retain customers and deliver what customers want, long-term.