Shopper holiday shopping browsing

It’s a buyer’s market. The tables have turned for retailers that were once in control of customer behavior — brands and stores have been left holding the shopping bag.

And a duality has also emerged in consumers. Customers now wish to drive their shopping journey, yet expect personalized experiences delivered from the same shops they wanted to independently peruse. A resounding “huh” can be heard within the retail industry. It’s a tectonic shift. The majority of retailers are finding themselves vying to win over the same shoppers that once were considered avid followers.

Consumers are now highly informed decision-makers. Gone are the days of simple brand loyalty. “Consumers today can research, browse, compare and purchase at any given moment from any one of their many devices. This always-available digital connection has caused consumers to expect personalized experiences from brands and retailers that fulfill their unique wants and needs,” said Lori Mitchell-Keller, global general manager of consumer industries at SAP.

This is where things get tricky. During the navigation of all things e-tail, shoppers expect a constant stream of touch-points, ease and accessibility. And that’s not including in-store experiences.

The fast-fashion phenomenon can be traced to retailers like H&M

H&M has championed in-store experiences and designer collaborations to intrigue savvy shoppers.  Joshua Scott

Michael Klein, director of industry strategy and marketing at Adobe said, “It’s a new world. Powerful experiences change the way we interact, entertain, work and relate to the world around us. With on-demand access to products and the lowest prices, experience and service become the only true differentiators for retailers, providing a pathway to an emotional connection with the consumer like never before. Because of this, those experiences must be compelling, personal, efficient, engaging — and everywhere.”

And though experiences need to be everywhere, consumers still need to feel in control. E-commerce site Farfetch has perhaps figured out the balance. Its “Discover” app allows customers to connect with the e-tailer throughout their day. “Our customers value a shopping experience that provides them with complete convenience. The Farfetch app allows our customers to shop on-the-go with ease. Around 60 percent of our traffic now comes from mobile — including the app — and tablet devices,” said Stephanie Horton, chief marketing officer at Farfetch.

It isn’t rocket science, but it involves a lot of data. Horton credited qualitative data as a main component to their tailoring e-mail newsletter campaigns. Farfetch bases this campaign “not only on explicit preferences, but qualitative data, like what consumers are browsing online and clicking on, we offer different personalized stories for customers,” she said.

Accessing qualitative analytics is paramount — but best not to rely solely on big data. Mitchell-Keller said, “To execute a successful omnichannel strategy, businesses need to truly understand their customers and capture their interactions, behaviors, the context and intent to create a continually evolving profile. While Big Data has been making headlines, it’s difficult to mine through the information to identify actions from these data sets.” Instead consider customers holistically and veer clear of empty promises, and new processes without matching the operations to support it.

Klein echoed Mitchell-Keller in the importance of understanding consumer behavior before rolling out customized content. “To deliver a personalized customer experience, retailers must first understand their customers by leveraging data about their buying habits and preferences,” he said.

Timing is everything, especially in the rapidly evolving consumer landscape that’s punctuated by last-minute purchases and deeply researched investment buys — a dichotomy at best. “Retailers need to use the right data at the right time on the right platforms to align with their current and targeted customers on their device of choice. Without the relevant data, customers won’t receive the personalized experiences important to them. And without the right timing, they won’t feel like this is their own journey,” Mitchell-Keller explained.

E-commerce, personalization

Macy’s partnered with IBM Watson on an artificial intelligence-powered shopping assistant. 

Having a platform that delivers real-time insights is a must for today’s retailers looking to improve standing with customers. “The Adobe Marketing Cloud seamlessly connects brand assets with rich consumer data, in real-time, to deliver relevant experiences. Retailers leverage Adobe Marketing Cloud to gain deep insights into customer behaviors — helping them deliver personalized campaigns, add new approaches, better target content and as a result, maximize profits,” said Klein.

Retailers stand to gain more from data than simply answering to consumers. Rich analytics provide opportunities to push next iterations of product forward, and in the right direction. Take Under Armour — an SAP customer — for example.

“The Gemini 2 shoe has a built-in chip that tracks, analyzes and stores workout data and GPS information,” said Mitchell-Keller. “Under Armour is consciously developing a relationship that begins with the purchase that then evolves beyond the promise of better training or faster running — it gives customers the tools to improve their life. This relationship allows Under Armour to understand the needs of the athlete. It provides the necessary insight to be in the right place — with the right product — at the right time.”

Underscoring all of this is the implementation of operations that will provide analytics for the present and are prepared for future developments. But there’s a huge learning curve. “According to recent research commissioned by SAP, two out of three organizations believe that their existing CRM cannot support their future vision for customer engagement. This data represents a paradigm shift of going beyond CRM,’’ said Mitchell-Keller.

Just throwing technology into the mix won’t do much good. “Retailers have to do more than personalize their customers’ individual web, mobile and in-store experiences — they have to ensure customers receive consistent experiences across all devices and through every interaction with the brand,” Klein said. “To accomplish this, they must organize their teams and technology around the customer journey, not the channels.”

The interior of a shopping mall in Hong Kong.

The interior of a shopping mall in Hong Kong.  Paul Brown/REX/Shutterstock

It would all be so simple if the shopping experience were just online. But then there are bricks-and-mortar counterparts. And herein also resides consumer duality. Much to do with the Amazon-effect, Millennial shoppers expect and appreciate streamlined, efficient retail experiences, said Keller-Mitchell.

Getting consumers to visit in-store will take plenty of strategic planning. “Customers want to see, try and feel merchandise before making a purchase, yet crave the excitement and convenience of using technology to experience products and shop in new ways. That’s why many retailers are offering new technologies that blur the line between entertainment and merchandising and give customers more control over how they interact with retailers,” Klein said.

But before finalizing any game plans, be sure to decipher the priorities belonging to target audiences. Want to pull in the Amazon-dependent Millennial? “Relevance is important — emphasizing the point that retailers need to have a meaningful, non-promotional presence in digital spaces to attract these customers,” said Keller-Mitchell.

To appeal to luxury shoppers, it’s about consistency across all channels. Horton said, “For all of the boutiques and brands on Farfetch, our approach has always been about creating a consistent luxury experience, whether online or in-store; it’s the combination of great product and content, total convenience and ease to shop, as well as outstanding customer service.”

Visitors who braved the chill winds at the High Line on Friday enjoyed Marimekko for Target's immersive activities and shopping the collection.

Visitors who braved the chilly winds at the High Line on Friday enjoyed Marimekko for Target’s immersive activities and shopping the collection.  Thomas Iannaccone

As products are easily accessed online, consumers are searching for more than merchandise when visiting bricks-and-mortar shops. “To entice consumers in stores and maximize their time, enjoyment and propensity to buy while they’re there, some retailers are experimenting with merchantainment, which meshes entertainment content with product information,” Klein said. This is the opportunity to delight and surprise shoppers with new branding initiatives and technologies.

So what does that actually mean? Look to interactive experiences, Klein suggested. By humanizing product and providing style tutorials or makeup how-to’s, merchandise becomes more than a jar on a counter or a dress on a hanger. Approach store associates as an extension of branding opportunities while providing strategic services. Klein said, “A retailer could arm store associates with mobile devices to support customer service needs, checkout services and access inventory availability. The possibilities are endless.”

The buck doesn’t stop there. Digital capabilities mean more data, which means higher potential to maximize ROI. “Retailers benefit by uniting the customer information they gather from these technologies and back-end systems to offer much more personalized services for shoppers,” he said. Shared on the same platforms, customer data is transferable to online and in-store shopping for big gains.

With software and technology companies swimming in success, retailers are urged to model business operations similar to digital start-ups. Think efficient workflow in a solution-centric framework. For Farfetch, it’s about matching shifting customer demands in order to grow with the shopper. Horton said, “The important thing, for luxury e-commerce sites to keep in mind about their customers, is listening to their needs and responding quickly and efficiently with solutions.”

This extends to physical stores as well. Purposeful interactions for customer-facing associates and back-end employees all need to be on board. “Retailers must ask themselves ‘What problem or friction am I removing?’ If the store associates don’t buy into the program, the likelihood of the program succeeding will be limited. The executives need to sponsor the programs, and the team needs to adopt it,” Klein said.

Best to adopt this strategy now — the consumer is already changing.