Retail in Venice, Italy.

Introduction to Venetian Retail.

As I headed to Venice on holiday for the first time, I was curious if there would be a difference between Venetian retail and US retail.  Everywhere I go, I get consumed by the retail experiences. My sister has visited Venice 12 times over the past few years and always talked about the shopping.  This is a milestone birthday year for me so we are doing a lot of traveling to commemorate it. My main goal in going to Venice was to find inspiration: for my work and for myself.  Did that just sound like a mid-life crisis? It shouldn’t. I love exploring new places and I have always been interested in finding new ways to add value to my industry.

I started Running Great Stores five years ago and have been blessed with incredible success. A trip to Venice gave me clarity of purpose, fun with my family, unique treasures that I will cherish for the memories and the courage to launch Rachel Williamson Companies, which Running Great Stores is a part of.

Wide Assortment of Retail Shops.

There are so many retail shops on the tiny island of Venice, Italy. What I found interesting is how many sold the SAME things! Murano glass, Burano handmade lace, paper, Carnivale paper mache masks and yet, each retailer acted as if you could only buy those products from their shop. Competing for sales was all about the experience, the price, and the assortment available. I must have gone into 5 different paper shops and while they carried so many of the same things, I managed to find something to buy in each one that was unique to that shop.

There are many tourist kiosks. The products are not priced, so the prices change based on whether the kiosk is busy or slow. When I finally bought a Venice sweatshirt, I realized I had overpaid, as the price had changed at night when the streets were packed compared to the early part of the day.

I found a couple of shops I really loved: a shoe store called Piedaterre, the maker of the original Venetian slipper, and a furniture store called Porte Italia. I ordered a chair from them, which is handmade and custom-painted and will be shipped in a crate across the ocean to my home in a few months. The experience at Porte Italia is fantastic, as they send images of the chair being created and will continue to do so as they make progress.

Don’t Skip the Gelato.

Amidst the retail shops were gelato shops everywhere. Our favorite gelato shop was Suso. They had two locations, both near the Rialto Bridge area. We went every night (and I wonder why I gained 2 pounds on this trip?), a ritual I cannot wait to repeat when we return. They have lovely flavors, homemade cones, and their monogram on the cookie that is slid into the gelato. Even the gelato was a retail experience.

We took the jetty to the Belmond Hotel, Cipriano and had lunch at Cips. The food, the view of the Adriatic Sea, the service – one of those experiences we will talk about for the rest of our lives. A gorgeous wood boat picked us up and sped from Venice to Giudecca Island, where the hotel is located. The hotel grounds are stunning. This is where I would love to have my daughter’s wedding someday. Oh, and a side note: it is where George Clooney got married. There is a row of gorgeous retail shops located inside the hotel. They treat every guest like royalty. We stay in Belmond hotels whenever we can and this is the hotel we will stay in next time we visit Venice.

Italian Selling Culture.

The italian selling culture is different from the retail selling culture in America. Venice is filled with people who have a heart for the craft of retailing and are genuine shopkeepers. From locally-owned shops to world-renowned brands, Venice has a wide range of retail.  Getting lost wandering the campos (piazzas), alleys and crevices was the most fun way to explore the retail scene.  I walked nearly 20,000 steps per day. There are no Ubers, bicycles, scooters, or cars anywhere. It is all about using your feet to get around! No wonder venetians are so slender!

My favorite shops were the small, locally owned businesses.  To work in retail in Venice means you must love the brand,  be committed to being knowledgeable about the products, both features and benefits, be able to successfully engage customers and close the sale, all while caring about the customer. 

Selling Culture Details.

Let’s dig into each of these three behaviors:

(1) Love the brand.  There is no way to work in Italian retail without passion for what you are selling.  The passion oozes from every associate.  Most locally owned shops have one or two associates working. The designer brands have 4-5 associates working.  It was hard to tell who the manager was, but it did not matter.  The associates wanted to engage and sell you something. If you work in fashion retail, you wear your brand’s attire. Uniforms are part of the role, so everyone looks sharp!

(2) Know product knowledge. Every engagement is centered around what you are looking at. For example, if I was looking at a wax seal, the sales associate would approach with information about the different fonts available, the various wood or Murano glass handles available, the price, and where they were made…all interactions that created engagement and relationship building. I never heard a sales associate say “are you finding what you need?”. No, they only approach with comments about what you are looking at. They LOVE To share the story of the brand, or the product.

(3) Care about the customer. It was obvious in every store that the associates cared about me as a customer, and demonstrated this by sharing their passion, product knowledge and using these to connect with me in a way that kept the conversation going.  Most were fluent in English.  The ones who were not graciously apologized for their poor English to which I replied “it is better than my Italian”!

Some stores were a bit pushy which I did not prefer, but I do respect their passion for their craft.

Italian Inventory Planning.

There is no transportation other than water taxis so the process of getting inventory to stores is not an easy one.  Imagine freight coming over on a boat, then being  unloaded onto the street and carted up and down stairs, over bridges to the shop.  The shops are very small, most averaging 500 square feet.  (they measure in meters which I did not master that during this trip!) The stores had small or no backrooms, with the floor fixtures having to do the heavy lifting.  Storage underneath every fixture was the standard and presentations were full and abundant, but still in a brand right way.  It appeared many stores used offsite storage containers to store excess products.

This gave me a new appreciation for the simplicity of retailing in America. We have backrooms, kitchenettes, toilet rooms all on site in most stores.  This luxury was not to be had unless you were a large department store or designer brand in Venice.

As I considered living in Venice, I wondered how Amazon packages could be delivered. It all comes by boat, and is unloaded and then hand carted. My guess is I am not getting same day delivery options in Venice. lol.

Italian Store Standards.

I loved seeing shopkeepers cleaning their doors and windows and stocking shelves throughout the day, taking pride in their work. There was no standing around, no leaning on fixtures.

Wrapping It Up.

I hope someday you will make a trip to Venice, Italy. It is as magical as described, and I was completely enthralled with the culture of the city, the history, and the retail. I know you will be too. In the meantime, if you work in retail, consider how you can bring a lux customer experience to your shop!

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