Thrifty consumers equal smart consumers, and since 2008, consumers have been getting smarter about their money every day. The shopping hasn’t ceased, but the way people shop certainly has changed and smart retailers have adjusted to that fact.

“Everything in the economy has slowed down in the last five to seven years, and we slowed down, too, until we knew exactly where we wanted to go,” explains Jim King, president of framing and art supplies retailer Aaron Brothers. “We made the decision that we needed a growth strategy and we needed to reinvent our stores. The chain is a 65-year-old chain. It’s had its ups and downs from a sales and profit perspective, but to be successful in the future we needed a new store prototype and growth strategy.”

For 18 months, Aaron Brothers worked with strategic brand and design firm Chute Gerdeman to define what that path would be. The process, King says, started with an “awful lot of research.” Consumer research, shopper data, focus groups and surveys provided the basis for a new award-winning design that the company debuted in West Hollywood, Calif., last October. That location was followed by other stores in the Golden State, including Woodland Hills in November, Irvine in April and Hermosa Beach in May. The stores reflect exactly what Aaron Brothers’ smart customers want – to be even smarter.

Try Then Buy

Just like shoppers at a grocery store touching and smelling a piece of fruit to gauge its ripeness, or trying on outfits at a clothing store to see how the coloring sets on their skin, Aaron Brothers’ customers like to know exactly what they’re getting before they get it. In the past, the company’s knowledgeable associates lent answers and suggestions to curious customers, and while that factor remains, the new prototype allows the consumer to make better-informed decisions. For each department – custom framing, do-it-yourself framing, art supplies – Aaron Brothers has created an interactive solution that puts consumers in the driver’s seat.

“We’ve taken the mystery out of this category,” King says. “The biggest thing is that we deal with a lot of students and beginners. We deal with a lot of professionals, too, but professionals already know what they want to buy, but the student and beginner doesn’t. In the past, there was always an associate around to answer questions, but how much better if you can get an associate to answer questions and then you get to try it?”

The custom framing division has always been hands-on, and now that concept permeates throughout the prototype stores. In its framing workshop, customers can bring in photos and artwork, choose a frame and mat, assemble it in the store and see exactly what it looks like before making a decision. In the store’s new “use our wall” section, customers can hang multiple frames in different positions to get an idea of how it would look in their own homes.

For the other half of its business – art supplies – Aaron Brothers introduced the artist’s bar, which King says has gotten the most buzz.

“We have so many artists that come in our store and ask questions about different products – what do these brushes do, and what does this paint or this medium do?” King says. “We partner with vendors to offer the best knowledge, but now we can allow people to play with and learn about the product before they buy it. Maybe you don’t like this brush or need something with more of a taper or an edge. Maybe it’s a decision between watercolor, acrylic or oil. They can try all three before deciding which one to buy.”

The new stores also let customers see professionals at play. Aaron Brothers has hosted various workshops and there are at least six televisions in each prototype featuring demos, ideas and lessons on different projects. The result of all these hands-on features is customers spending more time inside the stores and sales that have exceeded expectations.

All of this interaction takes place in a setting that mimics an artist’s loft. For its new stores, Aaron Brothers wanted a look that was clean but urban. And even though it has more merchandise in these new stores than the average Aaron Brothers’ location, King says the prototypes create a sense of openness missing in its older stores.

“Even if you just look at the flooring – some of it is polished concrete, some is hardwood, some is carpeting, and with the lighting we really tried to create what a designer’s loft would look like in the customers’ eyes,” King says. “We have open sight lines across the store. Product is placed lower so that everything is in sight. The stores look much bigger than before even though there’s more merchandise in them than ever before.”

Into New Spaces

One reason these prototype stores have more merchandise than their predecessors is because Aaron Brothers has expanded into the gifting category. Framed art and photographs have always played a part in the gifting industry, and now Aaron Brothers is delving deeper into this arena with jewelry, hospitality gifts, gifts for the home and for pets. King says the foray into gifting was the idea of an executive team that’s not afraid to try something new.

“If I were to revisit back 24 months, I never would’ve thought we would be in the gifting business,” King says. “And fast-forward to the next 24 months, we still don’t know what this gifting category will be like. Who would’ve thought that Aaron Brothers would’ve been a great store for pet gifts, but here we are.”

And in the next 24 months, those pet gifts and every other successful aspect of the prototype stores will be popping up in Aaron Brothers locations throughout California. After building its first two prototypes in West Hollywood and Woodland Hills, the company took stock and refined its vision for the Irvine and Hermosa Beach locations. In its five-year strategy, the company will continue to fine-tune the prototype and roll the concept out to stores throughout the state, which holds 70 percent of its volume.

For the next two-to-three years, King says the company will focus solely on California, relocating and renovating existing stores. Three years and beyond, he sees the company rolling out to stores in other states such as Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona and “filling in those markets,” King explains.

“We’re taking the best ideas from the prototype and bringing those back into the base business,” King says. “We’ve created an environment that’s different than what people were shopping in anywhere else. I’m sure in the next few years, competitors will see it and come up with their own versions of this and then we’ll have to reinvent ourselves again. But as of now, we are unique in this industry.”

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