Brick & mortar retail operations have already seen shifts in customer expectations toward digital offerings, but what more can they expect? And how can they prepare for an uncertain and ever-evolving future? [IMAGE: Illustration of three individuals with graphic representation of brick and mortar stores, websites, and social connectivity in the background]

Surviving & Thriving in Retail: Key Themes for 2019

Myplanet
Myplanet
May 15 · 14 min read

Myplanet has worked with some of the world’s leading retail companies in a number of sectors (consumer electronics, luxury goods, athletic apparel, travel, financial, and telecommunications to name a few) and it’s always interesting to compare and contrast industry insider perspectives with our own. This year, we’ve identified four key themes at the intersection of retail, technology, and user experience:

  1. Holistic experiences: Retailers are shifting from a primary focus on products & goods to a more “experience”-based focus. This will reshape customer interactions and dictate the technologies and strategies they select for adoption and deployment.
  2. Omnichannel offerings: The challenges inherent in combining brick & mortar retail experiences with digital retail experiences are vast and varied, but so are the opportunities (both known and to-be established).
  3. Organizational change: Retailers need to retool the way they operate at an organization-level — not just in their upfront consumer interactions — if they want to see lasting success in both technical implementations and digital transformations.
  4. Partnerships & shifting marketplaces: Emerging marketplaces and new technologies will require a greater emphasis on partnerships than ever before and retailers need to assess and understand their strategies for working within these new parameters.

Let’s take a look at each of these themes in more detail, with evidence pulled most heavily from our recent trip to DX3, an annual conference in Toronto where some of the biggest names in retail participate — from Harry Rosen and Lululemon to McDonald’s, Staples, and TD Bank — for a two-day symposium on the state of technology in retail.

Holistic Retail Experiences

A major shift across almost all retail spheres is the way retailers view themselves. Increasingly, they understand themselves to be not just providers of any one set of goods or products, but as conduits for an individual’s personal goals and objectives.

Simon Rodrigue, SVP & Chief Digital Officer of Staples, recently said Staples no longer views itself as just a pen & paper supplier for businesses. Instead, they’re rallying around a vision of themselves as an organization that can help companies achieve their business goals. “We really see ourselves as a platform for growth. We’re here to help you grow,” he stated.

The concept of that bigger-picture ideal was a thread running through multiple presentations at DX3. Andras Lazar, Head of North America Cards Marketing & Digital Acquisition for BMO Financial Group, for example, also commented on how the financial sector is shifting its focus: “Retailing for banks used to be about selling and servicing products, now it’s about finding and providing the right customer solutions.”

In some respects, this way of thinking is not new: companies like Nike have been more than just sneaker purveyors for years now. But it’s clear that the way digital and brick & mortar intersect now has created a more specific and urgent reframing for the retail industry as a whole. Even for niche companies specializing in a highly specific product, the lived experience of the brand has become almost as important as the product itself. And this applies for major enterprise organizations, irrespective of sector.

Of course, retailers will still offer their core product(s). But to truly differentiate on the basis of experience, there will also be experimentation around the overall customer journey. There will be a push to create more meaningful interactions through personalized brand touchpoints that can be tweaked and adjusted to truly put customer satisfaction at the centre.

Being where the customer wants, when they want, and in the way they want is all part of the shift from offering single product benefits to holistic brand experiences. [IMAGE: Illustration of a person with shoulder-length hair interacts with a point of sale system in retail setting]

The emergence of what Rodrigue called “the assistance age” — voice-first interactions, chatbots, 24-hour customer service via social media — means the line between retailers and consumers is getting narrower, and the distinction between what is and isn’t a product- or brand-relevant touchpoint is all but disappearing.

That’s why it’s so important for businesses to be thinking ahead. Already, voice devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa are in 53 million homes in America, with the number of smart speakers in U.S. households growing by 78% from 2017 to 2018 (source). And RBC Capital Markets predicts voice shopping on Alexa alone could generate more than $5 billion in annual revenue by 2020. Organizations need to be ready for how their brand interacts with consumers beyond just the moment of transaction, because customers will be thinking about brands outside of purely transactional terms.

The question to ask is no longer “How can we make this product better?” Great products are considered table stakes and brands will need to go beyond that to capture and keep the market.

The question to ask now is “How can we make this experience better?”

What Alexa skill can be built to connect meaningfully with customers, even if it doesn’t directly sell a product? How can AI be used to harness data and create personalized, relevant experiences outside of the search/find/buy cycle? What technology opportunity will keep customers engaged with the brand by providing value for them beyond what the product itself provides?

“We’ve always thought about the experience first,” Ian Rosen, VP Digital and Strategy at Harry Rosen said during a panel discussion at DX3. “Frictionless doesn’t always mean better. It’s still important to create and have those emotional moments of real connection.”

Those emotional moments — the first time you put on the suit you’ll get married in, for example — can’t be recreated through an app. But an app (or a new PoS system or better clienteling or…) could make other elements of the purchasing journey more enjoyable for customers, leading to greater engagement with the retailer and higher overall satisfaction.

Being strategic about where, how, when, and above all why you connect with customers becomes that much more challenging when you have to find the right balance between physical and digital interactions. But it also becomes that much more valuable. When it’s done effectively, both customers and brands benefit.

Omnichannel Offerings

Part of the strategic challenge retailers are facing is the proliferation of channels for connecting and communicating with their customers. Even more challenging is the number of channels that must double as purchasing streams (more on that a little later on).

Traditional brick & mortar stores have had an online presence for a long time, but now that presence has to change to include more immersive, on-the-go options. And the new generation of digital retailers (think Warby Parker) has had to shift from digital-only to digital-first, opening their own physical stores so customers can interact with products the way they want to.

More than one presenter at DX3 recited, almost as a mantra, that “retail is not dead”. But they quickly followed that statement with clarifications and caveats: it’s not dead, but our concept of it needs to be expanded. It’s not dead, but customer expectations around what constitutes a retail experience have shifted. It’s not dead, but businesses have to be better than ever before.

It may seem odd for us to say it, but the real take-away for retailers is this: Websites aren’t that important anymore.

Websites still matter, of course. Brands need to have one and it needs to be easy to navigate and appealing to customers. But no longer are they the holy grail of digital — at least not on their own. A good website is as much a minimum expectation as a good product is. More importantly, it’s wrong to assume it will be the primary digital touchpoint for customers.

To separate themselves in a crowded market, retailers will need to embrace a strategic omnichannel approach that harnesses insights from a wholly connected website/in-store/additional device & channel ecosystem to create personalized experiences for customers.

Because increasingly, customers conduct extensive research themselves, often in advance of ever connecting directly with a brand. They access products online before (if ever) going in-store, and while responsive mobile experiences are a good start for enabling customers to connect where and when they want, they’re far from the finish line.

Some early-adopter retailers have started incorporating wearables and voice-first interactions into experiences, but they’re still a long way from maturity in almost all of these channels — and there are many more spaces that haven’t been experimented with yet.

Multi-channel, multi-platform: a proliferation of interfaces means retailers need to be smart about where they meet their customers. [IMAGE: Illustration of various interfaces and devices]

Whether it’s online or in-person, or on desktop, mobile, Amazon Alexa or any other device or channel type that might emerge, meeting customers where they are will be crucial.

“It’s not about having channels just for the sake of having channels — it’s about picking 2 or 3 things that make sense for your target market and demographic.” — Katherine Jones, Associate Director of Product Strategy Services, Myplanet

This means several things:

  1. Conducting comprehensive user research to truly understand where and when customers want an interaction with retailers is more important than ever. Understanding who you’re talking to and how they want to be reached will be crucial to a successful omnichannel approach.
  2. Experimenting early with different approaches is going to be the best way to get it right. Try new channels on subsections of an audience, launch new experiences in specific markets and spaces, and learn from these experiments to ensure when a full-scale deployment happens, it has the best chance for succeeding.
  3. Understanding data (and this should come as no surprise) will be pivotal. Grappling with the quantity of data is challenging in itself, but finding truly meaningful information from that data is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing every business, regardless of industry.
  4. Businesses will need to retool how they view themselves. To effectively manage the ever-changing, multi-pronged approach that is omnichannel, retail companies are going to need to be nimble, flexible, and comfortable with ambiguity in a way that historically they haven’t needed to be. And not just in one part of the org — at every level.

Let’s look more closely at point 4.

Organizational Change

“Technological change is outpacing organizational change,” said Tara Wilkinson, Director of Marketing for Best Buy Canada, at her DX3 talk. And she has a point. Every part of an organization — from the C-Suite to the warehouse to the front-of-store — will need to be infused with a new way of thinking, one that recognizes technological change requires organizational shifts to be successful long-term.

Adding in a novel new technology may offer a short-term burst of success, but businesses that don’t enact meaningful infrastructure change will be left scrambling to maintain what they implement and will flounder if and when they bring any additional changes on board.

“Any consumer or service company that doesn’t have a digital component certainly should,” says Mark W. Johnson in his piece for the Harvard Business Review. “But the key to transformational growth is still a powerful and coherent business model.”

Regardless of industry, organizations need to be more agile, more ready to adjust and pivot than ever before.

But in retail settings, where the whims of consumers can be especially fickle, being able to find footing in shifting sands is paramount.

“The challenge in today’s retail environment is not just acknowledging change, it’s knowing how to roll with it. But the underpinnings to move in these specific ways is not insignificant.” Katherine Jones, Associate Director of Product Strategy Services, Myplanet

Businesses that understand it’s not only a technology shift (a new PoS system, for example) but also a strategic shift (a new way of thinking about transactions, interactions, and delivering value to customers) will be the businesses that succeed. And that requires a retooling from within.

“Transformation — digital or business — is a hot topic. But if you imagine it as something you can take off the shelf, then it’s only veneer and it won’t ultimately matter.” Ian Moss, Design Lead, Myplanet

It was encouraging to hear leaders speaking in those terms at DX3. As he discussed the shift from selling financial products to helping customers find the right financial solutions, Lazar noted the way BMO is driving internal change to align their thinking. “We instituted nomenclature changes, invoking the idea of ‘customer solutions’, to help motivate an internal shift in focus,” he noted.

These changes aren’t just surface, either. They’re crucial to the survival of established businesses. Waiting to shift operations until a new player emerges means starting a transformation process from behind, and playing catch-up to a business that emerged from change can be near impossible (think of Blockbuster and Netflix).

Or, as Rosen put it during a panel discussion at DX3: “If we don’t disrupt ourselves, somebody else will — and it’ll hurt a lot more.” Brands need to seize the opportunity to rethink structures now, so customers get the tech-enhanced experiences that will actually appeal to them before that opportunity is taken away entirely.

“A digital platform, or a digital solution, may enable a new epoch of transformative growth,” says Johnson, “But when you get under a company’s hood and look to see what’s really driving it, the engine of transformation turns out to be its business model.”

“Technology cannot save you in retail. But a business strategy that uses technology to help facilitate transformational change? That’s a lasting approach.” Everett Zufelt, Director of Technology Services, Myplanet

Businesses that understand the requirements around being open to change and being flexible enough to implement it quickly, that have the spirit of adaptability core to their operations, are going to find it much easier to transition no matter what technologies emerge. Moving towards a more agile mode of operation is the only way to be able to pivot as needed.

The good news is businesses that have a strong core offering will succeed. But that core offering may have to shift from what it was a decade ago to what it needs to be going forward in order to embrace new approaches for reaching and connecting with consumers.

Partnerships & Shifting Marketplaces

It’s not just new technologies that are emerging, but new spaces, new opportunities, and above all, a new reliance on partnerships that retailers will need to be ready for.

No longer are customers buying either on a website or in a store. Suddenly, they’re buying direct from Instagram and Twitter. They’re purchasing with the click of a button in a conversation with a chatbot on Facebook. They’re paying with the swipe of an RFID-device at a street festival.

When businesses embrace omnichannel approaches, they’re inevitably going to employ technologies outside their scope of familiarity and enter marketplaces they haven’t been in before. Both of those things require either a massive internal investment in shoring up skills and staff knowledge, or a willingness to partner with others who are already experts in those areas.

Assuming the area of expertise is not a blossoming core competency for the business, the latter option is typically the better choice, but it requires a willingness to be open with outsiders that hasn’t been required before. And this “connect with” and “purchase anywhere” approach will bring about a couple of big, somewhat diffuse challenges:

  1. How do businesses maintain their identity and brand authenticity when they no longer control the means of interaction directly?
  2. Who will they partner with when faced with an endless array of new opportunity spaces to avoid even greater fracturing of the essence of their brand?

The first challenge — that of maintaining control over their identity and brand — requires an extremely considered and thought-through approach to change and market fit. Not every opportunity should be harnessed, and those that are need to be approached with care. This kind of platform-oriented thinking is tough.

“Platforms require consultancy up front. The evolution to these holistic experiences that span channels and revenue streams and require a systemic overhaul of operations — that’s where consulting becomes so important.” Ian Moss, Design Lead, Myplanet

With a product-only focus, things were different. But this new era of retail experiences means that a partner — someone who can help think through the end-to-end experience, who can dig into the research with fresh eyes, who can clarify where investment should be made and which opportunities should be seized upon — is going to be extremely important for businesses going forward.

It can be extremely difficult to get a clear lay of the land, to understand where the risks are and how to minimize them while still moving ahead in ways that make things easier for customers. But a trusted partner can help.

Which brings us to the second challenge: how to pick the right partner? (Or rather partners, because the changes on the horizon won’t be limited to one technology stack or area of expertise.) Long-siloed businesses in the Fortune 500 space will need to forge connections outside their comfort zone and create partnerships that can be leveraged to bring customers what they want.

“It’s too hard to do it alone,” said Jennifer Smith, SVP Technology & Operations at Cineplex Digital Media, at a panel on the merging of digital and brand strategies at DX3. ”You have to find partners and organizations that are experts in their own areas.” We couldn’t agree more.

We’ve talked about the challenges for enterprises in finding AI partnerships before, and our recommendations hold across partner integrations in the retail space. Picking a partner requires brands to assess everything from their needs to their values to their opportunities for growth and more. And because maintaining brand integrity is going to be increasingly challenging for businesses as brand image control shifts even more into the hands of consumers, picking a partner that fits the way they operate will be an important piece of the puzzle.

“The pace of change has never been this fast before, and it will never be this slow again,” says Wilkinson. “Significant changes are happening in 5 months now, not 5 years and certainly not 50 years.”

More than the significant cost to a retailer in trying to master everything, there simply isn’t enough runway. Partnering is the only way to access the mastery required to grow the business the way it needs to grow in the timeframes we’re all going to be operating in going forward.

Conclusion

Retail is in the midst of a sweeping period of change: the shift from brick & mortar stores to comprehensive digital experiences is already underway. As the landscape of retail changes, businesses have recognized they need to be firm in their core offering and identity, but ready to shift to where the market demands.

Increasingly, they need to move beyond single-product offerings and instead find ways to support the identity and ideals of customers beyond direct product benefits, solving challenges outside the immediate solution of their offerings. Meeting customers when and where they want them will be a big piece of that puzzle, but even that goes beyond creating a responsive, mobile-ready experience. That space is too limited and, more than likely, too temporary for long-term success.

Retailers need to be ready to engage with a number of new technologies and approaches in order to bring to life the kind of personalized experiences customers will expect. They’ll need to rethink their operations from the inside out in order to achieve lasting success in a rapidly-changing retail sector, and that will require trusted partners and agile approaches to succeed.

Each of the four key themes we’ve discussed here will work in tandem with the others, redefining what retail experiences mean for both retailers and consumers. But for businesses ready to engage with this new era of digitally-empowered experiences, the opportunities for growth, customer loyalty, and significant market impact are there. And they’re going to be big.


Digital transformation is hard, but we can help. Contact our team today to discuss what the right technology solutions are for your needs and how we can help you implement them.

Myplanet Musings

Thoughts, ideas, insights, and more from the Myplanet team.

Myplanet

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Myplanet

We're a software studio. We make smarter interfaces for the workplace.

Myplanet Musings

Thoughts, ideas, insights, and more from the Myplanet team.

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