With availability and choice at our fingertips to a dizzying degree, consumers have become increasingly agnostic and demanding of instant gratification. Along the way, loyalty — once a constant of the retail environment — has declined significantly, yet another victim of the digital phenomenon.

The impact of digital dominance is real. HRC’s consumer research told us that consumers — Generation Z specifically — own up to five devices today, three of which they engage with simultaneously. They’re completely tapped in, 24/7. But it’s not a reality particular only to the young generations. With innovations like the digital wallet and Apple Pay, even those who’d prefer not to be digitally shackled find they have no choice but to tap in, lest they miss out.  

Our research also found that loyalty programs — once thought to be the ticket back to loyal patronage — aren’t always the answer. For every successful program run by Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, whose credit cards and points programs have been universally embraced, there are 10 retailers who’ve jumped onto the loyalty bandwagon, causing lots of noise but little differentiation. Consumers may sign up for initial savings, but tend to abandon them over time, leaving many retailers with expensive programs with little returns.  

Within this shifting retail landscape, one of the strongest tools that retailers can leverage is relevance. The question is how.

Create community  

Build sustainable ties with your customers. Similar to long-lasting friendships that evolve over time, there are countless examples of community done right. Take Peloton. Through add-on services and a subscription model, it has had real success bringing its customers in close. Warby Parker built its community from the grassroots, while Sephora created its community with the help of an online and in-store presence that allows customers to enjoy an interactive experience.

Anyone who’s stood outside an Apple store early in the morning — where a multigenerational lineup anxiously awaits the start of informational sessions — knows the power of community. Of course, when it comes to engaging a broad consumer base, Nordstrom is the ultimate community-builder, too.   

Creating a community promotes stickiness, another antidote to waning loyalty. Combined with exceptional service in-store, “sticky” community-embraced customers are much more likely to return.

Farla Efros HRC

HRC Advisory’s Farla Efros.  Courtesy

Be real

Be honest, be yourself, stand by who you are, fully and completely. Why? Because customers today are demanding it — and they won’t settle for anything less. Keep in mind consumers are incredibly savvy, curious, informed. They’ll likely research every item before purchasing it. Which means truth and transparency are essential to their shopping experience.

Being truthful also means taking responsibility for your actions if something goes off the rails (and it often does). Retailers gain more respect — and, yes, relevance — when honesty and accountability are wrapped into their business model.   

Embrace the customer journey

Building a connection takes time. It requires multiple visits, powerful communications and ongoing efforts at engagement. If a shopping experience is treated as a one-time event, the journey will only go so far. No one wants to be viewed like a transaction, after all. Retailers who reach out to their customers repeatedly — through social media, customer books, etc. — and who learn to embrace the journey with every consumer who crosses that lease line, will learn the power of relevance. 

Continue to evolve

It’s about reinvigoration, reimagination, updating and upgrading. Retailers need to constantly move forward with bold, purposeful steps and vision. Without innovation, a retailer is just standing still. And you pay a hefty price for status quo in today’s retail environment.  

Of course, for evolution to succeed, retailers must be mindful of their customers’ needs. If they focus elsewhere — perhaps trying to meet the needs of other prospective customers — retailers can lose credibility with both established and new customers. And ensure you evolve with your essence intact. Many retailers who have moved away from their core — where relevance is rooted — have faced tremendous challenges.

Personalize the experience

Consumers don’t want to be like everyone else. That’s especially true for Gen Z and Millennials, eager to promote their uniqueness and what makes them special. To meet those needs, retailers who allow consumers to personalize a product will find rewards — and relevance. Canadian retailer Roots, for example, allows customers to customize their jackets, shoes and other products in a way that suits their unique tastes. Nordstrom and Vans offer similar opportunities, with much success.

The “new normal” in today’s retail environment is defined by getting what you want, when you want it — wherever you can get it. For a retailer to succeed despite the limitations and expectations of the digital age, relevance is essential. Getting there isn’t easy. It requires forethought, strategy and expense. But it will be well worth the effort.


Farla Efros is president of HRC Retail Advisory, a leading specialist retail consulting firm that works with retailers to help them profitably adapt to the complex, changing digital environment.

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