Staying ahead: How the US is leading the way for UK retailers

During a recent work trip to Chicago, one thing we noticed is how good the place is at getting you to part with money. Whether it’s an incessant stream of advertising, not displaying tax in prices or simply friendly bar staff insisting on “just one more”; it feels the city is designed to empty wallets in a heartbeat.

We wanted to find out what retailers, particularly those in urban spaces, were doing to continue the trend — how they engaged shoppers, made the most of their finite spaces and increased basket spend in comparison to their UK counterparts.

Focus on exploration rather than shopper missions

US retailers facilitate exploration and inspiration rather than the mission led environments of urban UK retailers.

Physical product is displayed for tangible and tactile experiences, fixtures are spacious and often sporadic (despite the premium on space), and there remains space for bigger activations to tell cross category stories or tie in seasonality. These store layouts demand customers meander through produce and product — the lack of linear aisles helps break up the auto piloted mind-set of shoppers.

Doing so means retailers become destinations for shoppers: from freshly made sushi counters to one stop displays, they provide the ambience and variety to ensure customers make an effort to keep visiting. Even mission driven categories like food-on-the-go are facilitated with inspiration in mind — hot counters spanning a multitude of cuisines offer a welcome break from the UK’s much maligned “meal deal”.

Of course shopper missions still need to be satisfied (particularly in these urban stores); US retailers facilitate with efficiency and simplicity, but also recognise these are just hygiene interactions that shoppers expect rather than a single minded focus, as is the case in so many urban UK retailers.

Shopper journeys are staff fulfilled rather than solitary

Part of focusing on experience, means there is a prevalent role for store staff to play in terms of simplifying the journey or guiding exploration.

As opposed to head down, solitary UK shopping experiences, US retailers place store staff as a mediator across the shopper journey to play a pivotal role in inspiring the customer, introducing them to product and brand ranges beyond their standard list and basket.

In Mariano’s, an upmarket grocer, store staff articulate expertise on higher value items and make cross category / consumption occasion suggestions at the sampling stations littered throughout store. Alternatively, the staff in Nike were armed with radio devices; as we strolled past a sales assistant on the 4th floor we overheard him asking a colleague by the exit to shake the hand of a specific customer on their way out, who had no doubt spent a sizeable amount of money.

Customer service is firmly embedded throughout the US retail landscape and staff are empowered to embellish the shopper journey with knowledge, suggestions and opinion to drive basket spend, or alternatively just act as the friendly face of the brand at retail.

Integrating technology and online channels into bricks and mortar

US retailers are embedding technology throughout the customer journey to ease the retail experience: be that apps that lets customers “check in” — so that their click and collect orders are ready as soon as they arrive; through to category specific virtual assistants that walk customers through recipes, occasions and flavour profiles to aid decision at point of purchase.

This pragmatism is backed up by a desire to wow customers, exemplified by trialling augmented reality in Walmart, who are using the tech to bring the beauty aisle to life — allowing and encouraging customers to trial cosmetic products before purchase.

Mass market retailers are investing heavily in these broader innovation agendas, also driving brands to incorporate digital experiences into their stores, rewarding them with more placements and increased visibility.

This use and prevalence of tech feels far more embedded in the US than the UK, perhaps aided by a more coherent omnichannel story — with many US retailers (and brands) encouraging shoppers online to explore a fuller range or product reviews. Not only does this reduce the amount of SKU’s displayed in store, but also smooth’s the shopper journey.

Although certain UK retailers are making strides across some of these areas, those in the US seem to do these things intuitively — creating environments where shoppers feel relaxed and inspired, whilst removing barriers to purchase. There remains a danger, however, as American retailers can overdo gratuitous tech, in your face customer service or convoluted shopper journeys. The key from a UK point of view is to move towards these principles but adapt them for a more cynical British consumer.

These retailers may not be indicative of the wider US landscape, but they certainly proved representative of Chicago: excellent environments for us to spend as much as possible.

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