Birchbox Man + The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Free shipping, omnichannel, subscription boxes and connected commerce. These formerly irrelevant considerations are rapidly becoming recognized — even essential — parts of retail, mirroring the rapid changes of the industry as a whole.

The retail industry model is notably complex, and is now more so than ever in the age of always-on shopping capabilities and sky-high customer expectations. As Harvard Business Review reports, “shopping as a discrete activity in a given place and time takes a distinct backseat. Rather, the transaction becomes an ambient activity that is executed everywhere (at home, on the go, at work, in leisure) and anytime.”

People are shopping all the time, everywhere, often without even realizing it. This constant activity raises many new questions about the evolving retail landscape: Which channels do I need to sell through? Do I need both on- and off- line storefronts? But some questions will always be relevant: How do we acquire new customers while retaining loyal customers? To answer these questions, retailers are racing to keep up with technology trends, apparel start-ups and consumer behaviors. They must continually iterate, from creating new roles to targeting new market opportunities.

One major shift in this new retail model is in how customers are discovering products and brands in the first place. When subscription boxes entered the market, consumers treated them as giftlike products — exciting, novel ways to incorporate surprise and delight into their buying habits. But now, retailers are realizing the importance of leveraging these services as channels — a means for consumers to discover new products to which they then become loyal.

From fishermen’s tools to makeup to dog toys, there seems to be a subscription box for every possible niche. And for every niche, there’s an audience — a targeted audience that an increasing number of retailers are trying to get in front of so they can better determine what their potential and current customers want. The subscription box model enables retailers to physically get their products into the hands of their target audience. Which is helpful, since people are more likely to buy something they’ve touched.

In fact, a recent study shows people were willing to pay an average of 60 percent more for an item they’d touched or held longer than a group of people who only touched it briefly. For consumers, this retail model provides a more cost-effective and time-saving path for discovering new brands. Gone are the days of spending $30 on a bottle of premium shampoo, only to find it doesn’t suit your hair type. With the sample sizes provided in subscription boxes, consumers can test products before committing to larger purchases.

In addition to discovering new products through brands like Birchbox, there are subscription services that curate customized boxes of products based on an individual customer’s tastes, and allow customers to send back what they don’t want, hassle-free. One fast-growing example is Stitch Fix, a brand that ships several items of clothing based on survey results that curate customers’ unique styles and preferences. Shoppers simply keep what they want, with a minimal monthly fee, and send back the rest.

Yet another new model for discovering products centers on the concept of rent-to-own. For $59 per month, Le Tote sends you a box of three garments and two accessories. You can keep what you like, or return items to exchange them for new rentals throughout the month. Now apparel brands not only have to keep up with their online channels and bricks-and-mortar stores, but they also need to find the right subscription box or service for their target audience. From chatting at bridge club to watching QVC to window shopping at the mall, brand discovery in the digital age has taken on a faster evolution than ever before.

Retailers must engage all their resources to sustain steady growth. From keeping up with the ever-evolving channels and methods of discovery, to building a memorable brand, products are rarely just products anymore, but inclusive, interactive customer experiences.

With this new, ever-evolving retail model, retailers need to be focused on remaining competitive and creating business strategies that accommodate the latest model of product discovery. Today’s subscription services will soon be edged out by a more innovative model, again spurring retailers to adapt their actions to how consumers find, buy and evangelize new products and brands.

Brandon Levey is chief executive officer of Stitch Labs.

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