Making the Old New–Branding and Merchandising the Ships Store

By Charles H. Vaughan, V.P. Ships Store Program, NEXCOM

USS RONALD REAGAN heritage wall

USS RONALD REAGAN heritage wall

Looking Back. Sometimes innovation is finding what used to work and reinventing it for the current times. In the earlier days of the Ships Serviceman rating, the SHs spent a good deal of time ashore working in commissary stores or Navy Exchanges (NEXs). Exposed to subject matter experts in the areas of merchandising, retail management and sales, SHs returned to the Fleet eager to try out those techniques at their afloat stores. Unfortunately, due to budget cutbacks, a sea/shore rotation that lost key ashore billets at commissaries and NEXs, and the loss of seasoned senior enlisted personnel over time, those skill sets diminished and were lost to the SH personnel. Sure, the words and tasks were still in their manual, but no one really knew what they meant, what they were supposed to do and even the supplemental manuals fell into disuse.

Master Chief making a purchase

Master Chief making a purchase

Making the Navy Exchange Enterprise a Real Enterprise. When Rear Adm. Robert J. Bianchi (Ret), SC became Chief Executive Officer of the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM), he emphasized that the NEXCOM Enterprise was composed of six different, yet integrated, business lines (NEXs, Navy Lodges, Uniform Program Management Office, Ships Stores Program, Telecommunications Program Office, and the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility), but no one would know it by how those programs presented themselves to their customers. Bianchi’s challenge was how to tie all six business lines together and create a seamless experience for Sailors and their families, no matter which part of NEXCOM they touched.

“When I go into a Target store, I know that I am in that store by the visual cues that are there… a red circle, red lines, etc.,” stated Bianchi. “All [commerical] stores have that same look and feel visually. I want the same feel for all of our business lines.”

Today, any customer who walks into a NEX will immediately know that they are in a NEX by the blue color lines in the store, the yellow hash mark, and often a “Navy heritage wall or poster” that relates to that base. That “brand/visual cue” is now expanding to all the NEXCOM Enterprise business lines including the Ships Stores Program.

Branding the Ships Store. NEXCOM and the Ships Stores Program leadership agreed that while the core brand elements had to be there, the team had to be sensitive to the fact that NEXCOM does not own the ships store – the commanding officer does. In addition, the Type Commander has a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance and sustainability of the ships stores. As a result, NEXCOM’s Ships Stores Program team came up with an “afloat brand” that was both common to the NEX brand but also unique to the afloat community. The afloat brand would have the common elements of a blue line and yellow hash marks.

However, branding would be unique to every ship by a value statement: “Your Ship – Your Store” with the ship’s logo and a ship related heritage wall or heritage poster (depending on size of ship) designed and approved by each ship. Add in blue vinyl wraps on coolers, a blue line at the counter, and common “welcome/ thank you” signs on the doors and suddenly every ship could now “have the look.” They could be both unique and be recognized as a part of a greater whole. As an added benefit, Bianchi obtained support from NAVSUP to fund the branding at no cost to the ship.

USS McFaul Ship Store shelving

USS McFaul Ship Store shelving

Making the Brand Come Alive. There is an old adage that putting lipstick on a pig does not improve the pig. It may look prettier, but it is still a pig. Accordingly, branding is only half of the effort. The key to reaching change, to improving sales, to offering better customer service and to a better afloat quality of life is merchandising. The very skill set that SHs used to have and that had long been forgotten had to be brought back to make the ship’s brand mean something to the SHs and the crew.

Enter the Ships Stores Program, in association with the NEX visual merchandisers. The same folks that make the NEX come alive were now focused on working with the Ships Stores Program to improve the afloat experience.

“Our goal is to employ NEX and Ships Stores Program associates to train the afloat SH in the basics of merchandising so that we are teaching them how to fish vice just giving them a fish,” said Bianchi.

Elements of Merchandising – Adjacency Model. The NEXCOM team soon found that no two stores, even in the same ship class, were the same. The team developed the afloat adjacency model in which “locations” were identified for each class so that they put like stuff with other like stuff. No more underwear in the candy aisle. With set locations for each commodity, it allowed the S-3 leadership the freedom to make new merchandise choices for any one location, add for deployment, subtract for in port, but kept the “location” set. NEX retail experts developed these locations for each class of ship to maximize sales and profits to the crew, improve customer flow in each store, and reduce workload by the SHs as now everyone knows where to put each kind of merchandise and how to display it.

Training. The merchandise teams faced two challenges, (1) how to change the culture of the ship’s S-3 leadership so that they “see” and “feel” the improvements and accept the “new way” of setting a store, and (2) how to provide that ongoing sustainability so that any reset is not a time event. The culture shock of doing it a standard way is one that will be with the ships until a critical mass of stores are achieved and or senior enlisted suddenly see the results in better sales/profits and happier customers. To assist ships, NEXCOM’s Ships Stores Program has both subject matter experts visiting ships for resets and training as well as trained Fleet Assist Teams in the merchandising skill sets. Now every branded and merchandised ship has access to refresher training and resets to keep the store “set” as well as obtain training for new Sailors on that ship.

Proof. For the 33 ships that have been branded to date, each one would say that it HAS made a difference. Sales have increased (sometimes over 50 percent) along with profits. Likewise, the customers visit the store and see a space that reflects both the pride of the ship and the respect of the customer – they are valued and deserve a great place to shop – a bit of home away from home. The old is being reinvented, one ships store at a time. New ships stores will be branded once it is scheduled by the TYCOM or requested by the ship. Get ready for a Great Experience!

November/December 2015