How Neiman Marcus Is Blurring Digital And Physical Store Lines

Scott Emmons, who heads Neiman Marcus' Innovation Lab, also has a message for companies that want to sell him the 'Next Big Thing' in indoor digital marketing.

For an iconic luxury brand, Scott Emmons, who runs the Innovation Lab for Neiman Marcus, the approach to evaluating and using new technologies is all about “grassroots.”

“We have a small team and I heavily rely on the internal business partners to deliver projects,” Emmons told GeoMarketing ahead of an appearance at Kwolia’s Retail Innovation Lounge conference in Dallas, where the 110-year-old upscale department is based, this week. “I also rely on those third parties that are tenaciously, constantly calling me to pitch me the ‘next big thing’ in retail.'”

As Neiman Marcus, is exploring an expanded use of beacon and indoor marketing, Emmons also has a word of warning when it comes to what those vendors should demonstrate when they come to show off their wares.

“If you’re coming to me to pitch a beacon solution, it’s not going to hurt your use case if you have an idea with luxury retail in mind,” Emmons said. “We don’t want to see something that’s designed for a pharmacy’s shopping experience. I pay more attention to the guys who get what Neiman Marcus and its customers’ needs are about.

“These are tiny pieces of fussy technology that needs tending to,” he continued. “So we ask hard questions about how their beacons work, such as long battery life and what their track record has been for retail.”

GeoMarketing: How does Neiman Marcus define “omnichannel?” Do you feel this term is helpful for marketers or do you feel it is just a buzzword?

Scott Emmons: I think omnichannel is an over-used term. When I started in Neiman Marcus 13 years ago, there truly were silos. Online was online and it didn’t speak much to the physical store side of the business. And it was siloed on purpose because there was a lot of difference between those two areas.

But as the world has changed, and retailers understand that customers didn’t see the brand terms of distinct “online” and “offline” entities — they just see Neiman Marcus — they’ve done a lot of work to blur those lines.

So I don’t think we have to talk about “omni” anymore. The notion of digital and physical being seamless is something that’s embedded in how we approach the customer.

How has e-commerce changed the nature and the importance of the physical store?

We have marketing people who can go into that question much more deeply than I can given my role at the Innovation Lab, but it’s safe to say that customers that shop via all the possible methods — in-store, desktop, mobile, etc. — buy more stuff. So there is a concerted effort to make it easier for customers to purchase what they want across all devices.

So it’s all about continuing to strengthen the foundations that allow those purchases to happen seamlessly. As I said, online and offline methods were built separately to handle different shopping experiences. We’ve worked hard — and continue to — bridge those divides for customers.

Part of what I do in the I-Lab is leverage some of the great things that online has provided to customers and use those capabilities in the physical store. Now, the reverse has happened: we want to take some of the great things that consumers experience in the store and translate that to online shopping.

How has location technology (e.g., geofencing on the outside, proximity tools like beacons on the inside) affected the marketing strategy for retail locations?

The mobile app can employ geofencing and that’s a case-by-case basis. Through the I-Lab, I have worked on three separate beacon projects. The first two were pretty simple: we just connected it to “beacon-enabled passes” that could be added to the Apple Wallet. Consumers didn’t need to have an app for that. One of the interesting things was that it also empowered individual store managers to offer beacon passes without having to receive specific approval each time. We also did corporate benchmarking to see how stores did with it and the results were encouraging, especially since the cost of doing that kind of program was not expensive to do.

Still, as we continued exploring beacons, we decided to do something bigger in line with an in-store app. For the moment, however, marketing has other priorities and we’re waiting for the clearance to light that program back up.

What I can say about that is by using an app and having the SDK built into our app is that we can offer a great deal more personalization when someone comes into a store. With Apple Wallet, those efforts were more generalized.

Beacons have gone from a tool to offer a promotional discount with to something that can “enhance the in-store experience.” How do you define that concept and the way beacons can do that?

Neiman Marcus is not a “promotional” business, so a lot of the use cases for beacons, such as delivering digital coupons, never applied to us. We’re looking for ways to use micro-location — very precise, indoor ways of reaching consumers who opt-in to receive those messages — so that the message is not only specific to where the customer is in the store, but to what their individual purchase habits are like. We want that message to resonate both in terms of the customer’s location, as well as what they’re interested in buying.

The other question we’re trying to solve with beacons is: “How much messaging is too much?”

In a store, a person is constantly seeing their phone buzzed from emails, text messages, mobile ads. We don’t want to be the message that counts as going overboard. No one wants to deal with a salesperson on the floor who is repeatedly asking, “Do you need help? Do you need help?” with every step you take. It’s the same thing with smartphone message.

So getting location accuracy, message frequency and relevance right are where we’re focused in terms of beacons.

What else are is the iLab working on now?

We just rolled out mobile charging stations in stores. It may not sound very sexy, but it turns out to be a great thing that’s appreciated by the customer. And there’s probably going to be a beacon component to those stations, such as helping people to find them. We’ve been working with ChargeItSpot on setting up those areas.

We also just launched a digital try-on mirror for sunglasses. Those are the kinds of things that are we’re really excited about in terms of, as I said earlier, blurring the lines between digital and physical.

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David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.