Are You Providing a Shopping Experience That’s on Par with Consumer Shopping Habits?

A significant number of consumers have taken to shopping online – on their computers – and an increasing number on their mobile devices. Millenials especially, who represent most online customers today, use their cell phones and various social media channels to get the best deals. They seek out substantial discounts, and more than ever before, visit stores and then compare prices on Google and retailer websites – a practice known as showrooming – before ever making a purchase. Benefits like high rebates, gift cards, and loyalty programs, coupled with lower prices online, help make online shopping more attractive.

This means that retailers need to adapt to e-commerce and m-commerce (electronic commerce conducted on mobile phones), not only to keep growing profits but also simply to survive in the new marketplace.

This drastic change in shopping platforms has, in fact, divided the market. Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers – with their disappointing sales reports and seemingly frequent bankruptcy filings – certainly do not paint a positive picture. Others have, however, taken to modern technologies – whether it be the adoption of apps or social media – to ensure their businesses adapt and thrive.

Some of the leading trends in this area are as follows …

The Omnichannel Retail Approach

More than merely boasting a compelling social media presence, brands need to consider what the changing retail environment requires of their businesses. For some, this has meant a focus on making their distribution channels cohesive and attractive, and the omnichannel model has proven successful.

Omnichannel is a sales strategy retailers are adopting to provide customers with an effortless shopping experience on all platforms – including smartphones, desktop computers, retail stores, and even telephone orders. The goal of omnichannel is to provide a universal shopping experience (read: a seamless experience across all platforms), with something for everyone.

The disturbance created in retail shopping – largely as a result of the universal push towards online shopping – can easily be sidestepped by adopting the omnichannel strategy. Research has shown that, even though the number of customers who head to a physical store for shopping is quite high, the number moving online is growing significantly. In fact, according to a 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Parcel Service, for the first time, consumers say they bought more of their purchases on the web than in stores. As of last year, shoppers made 51% of their purchases online, compared to 48% in 2015 and 47% in 2014.

The convenience of shopping online – along with the multiple offers often associated therewith – has a major impact on these numbers. 

Partnerships

Like many of the other trends discussed herein, those that are disrupting retail tend to center on providing convenience often within a larger, more complete consumer experience. With this in mind, the increasing demand placed on online stores (e.g. to fulfill online orders fast, with free shipping, whilst keeping track of in-store inventories) has led an increasing number of retailers to partner with service providers.

Macy’s, for instance, partnered with Google in late 2014 to make use of the tech giant’s proximity marketing platform in an effort to drive sales in stores and online. With the help of Google’s search capabilities, Macy’s shoppers were able to see if the items they were interested in purchasing were in stock in specific stores near them, and were then able to order the items for immediate in-store pick-up.

According to Forbes, the idea was a real win for Macy’s, which otherwise might have lost sales if customers, wanting an item immediately, decided to purchase it elsewhere or opt for a different product entirely. The feature increased the likelihood that consumers would complete the purchase; bringing them into the store to pick up items opened the door for them to see additional merchandise they might want to shop.

More straightforward co-branding scenarios run rampant in the fashion industry. Fast fashion retailers have mastered the high fashion collaboration; H&M, alone, has joined forces with numerous fashion brands, including Lanvin, Versace, Balmain, Marni, Alexander Wang, and Roberto Cavalli, drawing in hordes of consumers as a result.

Paris-based “it” brand Vetements worked with Juicy Couture, Champion, Levi’s, and Dr. Martens, among others, for its much talked-about Spring/Summer 2017 collection. And on the tech front, market giant Apple has tapped fashion brands, such as Hermes and Coach, to boost the appeal of its Apple Watch.  

This relatively simple strategy of partnering and co-branding with others can help brands in bringing in more customers and can also cultivate a positive reputation for a store.

Self-aid

Retailers are now taking to customer communities and self-service portals, which provide quick solutions to customers. The most drastic example of late: Amazon Go, a grocery store currently being piloted in Seattle. This new model enables shoppers to walk out of a store with whatever items they choose without dealing with any sales personnel – sensors throughout the store record everything customers pick up and charge their Amazon Prime accounts upon their exit from the store. As Forbes’ Rachel Arthur noted not too long ago, Amazon’s vision is certainly “a nod to the automated future of retail and the growing role that a shopper’s phone will play in control the entire commerce experience.”

There is also Rebecca Minkoff’s recently-launched self-checkout in the brand’s Soho, New York store. The brand teamed up with QueueHop late last year in a further push towards the fully-consumer controlled shopping experience. New York-based tech company QueueHop re-engineered security tags to unlock the moment a payment is made via a shopper's phone or a QueueHop self-checkout kiosk.

The technology empowers customers to be in control of their shopping experience, while effectively reducing lines, cart abandonment and the time associates need to spend at checkout. With the QueueHop technology, Minkoff is looking to redefine the traditional checkout format and bring back foot traffic to her physical retail stores by integrating a digitized experience.

Micro Data

Micro data is the lesser known counterpart to big data. It differs in that it follows an individual’s preferences and purchases, not larger audience trends that big data is interested in. Micro data gives retailers a thorough profile of each customer who opts to shop with them, thereby enabling them to provide a personalized customer experience.

This has been a key strength for Zara. The Spanish fast fashion giant maintains an internal data center that helps it track what customers at each of its individual stores want (and do not want), which “is a huge boon to help it outlast others in the current retail environment,” according to Harvard Business School ("HBS").

Per HBS, Zara’s process starts in a similar way to the traditional retailers – with an initial order. The difference is that instead of ordering the bulk of the quantity for the season, Zara only orders a small amount of merchandise. Once the merchandise hits the stores, Zara collects sales data and analyzes each SKU’s sales against supply.

Zara goes even further, analyzing performance of features of different SKUs. For example, they might identify that pants with patches sell better than pants without patches, or that certain colors or fits move faster than others. Zara then uses these insights to guide their subsequent orders and restocks. They will design and manufacture models that have the most popular features to satisfy demand.

Virtual Assistance

Virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana have been well-received by audiences all across the world. So, why not integrate them into retailing strategies?

Retailers can now provide a personalized shopping experience through engaging applications and software products, and some of the largest retailers have been looking at augmented reality (“AR”) for years. These types of technology advancements have huge potential to reach shoppers who are constantly on their mobile devices, allowing retailers to connect with shoppers either while they are in store, or even outside the store, to entice them inside.

The use of virtual assistants and concierges, for instance, which may come in the form of bots (software applications capable of carrying out automated tasks), gives customers a feeling of human interaction, and elevates the online shopping experience.

Spring, the New York-based mobile shopping app, for instance, introduced its “personal shopping assistant” powered by Facebook’s application programming interface (a shared software library with a set of functions that can be applied to create software applications). Meant to help facilitate mobile purchases and answer customer questions, Spring’s Bot “walks customers through a series of multiple-choice questions to help them find suggested items.

Prompts include, "‘What are you looking for today?’ (women’s items or men’s items) and ‘What’s your price range?’ (under $75, $75 to $250, over $250). The interactions feel authentic, not robotic, but Spring Bot’s one flaw is not getting the hint when your shopping trip on Messenger is over,” per Digiday.

According to the app’s founders, David and Alan Tisch, “We created an experience to fit into the natural behavior that’s already happening on the platform.”

Importance of Consumer-Controlled Marketing

Particularly as of late, the entire journey of a product or service from conception to consumer is highly dependent on and ruled by customers. The expectations are constantly changing and retailers need to cater to them.

Customers are highly dependent on platforms – from social media networks to cloud technologies – for more than just communication. It is worthwhile for retailers to utilize these spaces to produce the seamless experiences that consumers expect (read: demand).

The dawn of the new era of online retailing is not necessarily the road to retail extinction. With simple strategies and a constant – and consistent – customer feedback loop, retailers can hold on to their existing customers and acquire new ones.

Retailers can prepare themselves to meet the expectations of consumers through shopping solutions and retail innovations that are a confluence of technology trends available on all channels, including smartphones, social media, and even cloud technology. With the customer data collected, retailers not only need to cater to present needs, but also need to consider the expectations that the future may hold.

Frida Cooper is a retail analytics researcher with Intelligence Node, a Mumbai-based big data firm helping brands and retailers with pricing and merchandising analytics.