Retail is a massive industry — according to eMarketer it’s on track to reach $5 trillion this year in the U.S. alone. But I believe it has the power to be even bigger. Never before have retailers had such rich insights into who is purchasing their products, and why — not to mention the ability to determine how to better cater to their customer.
Yet there are three key mistakes that retailers are making that ultimately impact their bottom line.
1. Failing to sync e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar functions.
It’s sad but true: even in today’s tech-driven society, retail is severely lacking from a customer experience standpoint. I’m not talking about the decidedly awesome ways some brands are harnessing technology to create enhanced experiences, like Sephora and Target — I applaud their initiatives and would love to see more retailers follow in their footsteps. And a year ago, when Nordstrom moved a decent percentage of their innovation unit into their Customer Experience Center, that was an even bolder signal that we are going to see a great transformation from what was once unquestioned as the norm to the new realities that customers demand.
One of the problems I see is in the infrastructure. Most retailers have started as either a bricks-and-mortar or an e-commerce operation, and their systems and inventories were built accordingly. Even businesses that launched both aspects simultaneously have had siloed standards for data and aren’t complementing each other, which seems ludicrous in today’s business environment.
“Omnichannel” has gained popularity as a buzzword, but in my opinion it’s merely that: a term people throw around to make it seem as though they’re presenting a unified customer experience when oftentimes it’s anything but. Separate business units have their own short-sighted incentives as individual operating units, which are often driven simply by making the sale, rather than the brand play of making shopping more enjoyable and desirable, which would eventually lead to sales via loyalty and word of mouth.
To fix it, the inventories and infrastructures of retailers’ business units need to become one, and leadership needs to put the right folks in place to make that happen. Not changing is not a viable option.
2. Treating shopping experiences as silos rather than celebrating how the customer seamlessly shifts between options.
It was only 20 years ago that, when we needed a new pair of shoes or decided to upgrade our television, we’d visit a physical store or shop by catalog. We had to rely on salespeople to tell us about the features and benefits of a product we were considering, and trust that they were steering us in the right direction. Now, it’s not unusual to check out a product in-store before purchasing online — or vice versa — or even to read up on a specific item on a Web site while standing in the bricks-and-mortar store staring at it. In fact, according to recent Google data, 82 percent of shoppers consult their phones about purchases they’re about to make in-store.
There are benefits to each, of course. Bricks-and-mortar offers the opportunity to check out quality and craftsmanship, to evaluate fit and style, and to own an item instantaneously. E-commerce, on the other hand, offers the convenience of shopping from anywhere, the benefit of crowd-sourced reviews and, often, price savings. And consumers will always figure out a way to work the system to their advantage, whatever that may be.
To address this, it’s time for retailers to start thinking about their businesses from the consumer perspective, not the corporate one. The desire and demand exists for the integration of the digital and physical experiences, and there are innovations like multiple virtual secure environments that exist to do just that. By putting the customer and their needs first, retailers have an opportunity to not only upsell existing shoppers but to gain new ones.
3. Missing the opportunity to personalize shopping experiences based on past history.
An entire industry was built on a desire to know what consumers think and how they feel about shopping. Surveys are regularly fielded across the country to unearth motivations to purchase, profiles are created that represent the “average” customer, retailers create what they think are ways to cater to them, and then shoppers are surveyed once again about their experience.
Then, in the early Aughts, we used something called a cookie to get smarter about an individual’s shopping behaviors. And we learned that averages are the result of extremes. We could tailor messages, personalize experiences and spend less money with greater success.
Those mobile devices that we’re often glued to throughout the day? Well, they’re essentially cookies that know what sites we’ve visited and where we visited them from. If we’re registered on a specific site or logged into an app, those cookies are even more instructive. The advent of smartphone shopping, which according to the Harvard Business Review now accounts for 40 percent of all online purchases, has essentially created a digital fingerprint in the real world that retailers can utilize to enhance the customer experience. They have the ability to follow specific consumers’ behaviors versus relying on stereotypes and assuming everybody who fits a certain profile does the same thing. Fixing this requires greater personalization.
We’ve seen the cycle over and over for the last 15-plus years: consumer backlash over privacy flares up and then fades as potential fears give way to better experiences. Yes, consumer privacy must be respected, and all marketers should behave that way. But the focus should be on how to create amazing interactions with our customers with the tools and data points we have access to today. A recent survey by beacon marketing platform Swirl found that 88 percent of consumers would be more inclined to shop at a specific retailer if they received more personalized and connected experiences across all channels: online, mobile and in store. Retailers need to embrace the power of personalization and abandon any “Big Brother” trepidations they may have.
My team has been experimenting with beacon and Bluetooth low energy technology for a few years. But we think there are much smarter ways to go to market. Instead of sending a text message to someone’s pocket, we are leveraging a retailer’s loyalty app to serve environmental, in-store promotions that are specific to individuals based on their purchase history. We aren’t saying, “George, buy this” — we are just more relevant to the person on the sales floor. It’s a fairly straightforward concept with the potential for significant upsell — all because it caters to the customer and their habits.
It is an exciting time to shake things up. Customers want retailers to take the leap into the future and provide more value, utility and personalization. Companies that put a premium on a seamless and effortless experience across channels that are true to the brand and not a carbon copy of each container, will reap great rewards in both affinity and sales.
George Ward is chief engagement and innovation officer at Philadelphia and Boston-based marketing agency Allen & Gerritsen.