We are on the edge of a massive extinction event. It’s not one you may think; it is the death of the American Shopping Mall. Retail giants like Sears, Macy’s and Kmart have all announced store closures with other big-box retailers and smaller specialty stores disappearing altogether.
From its inception, the Mall wasn’t just a place to shop for goods and services, but it became the default Third Place in America, the place between home and work where you belonged. At the Mall, you met your friends, you shopped with family, you enjoyed your off time, you ate a Hot Dog on a Stick. The Internet, mobile phones, and social media took away the shopping mall’s status as society’s meeting place and because of one-click online shopping, it became a rather inconvenient place to buy goods and services. But as customers grow increasingly finicky and more sophisticated, not just the mall, but traditional retail in general will seem quaint and inconsequential.
Many retailers have already pivoted their business models and are implementing new retail strategies. These days, retailers know that if they are to thrive and survive in this millennium, they need to follow a new set of retail strategies to become customer- centric businesses: customization, personalization, convenience, transparency, and customer experience design.
Customized clothing and goods were relic from history. Tailors and cobblers lined the streets near the markets where you could get a straight-razor shave, a shoe shine and maybe a fresh loaf of bread. The very wealthy would still have custom couture clothing and specialty-made items but the rest of us were to be content with mass-produced jeans and tee shirts. Even Henry Ford, the harbinger of mass production knew the limits when he said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Companies started experimenting with customized retail experiences before, but it wasn’t until the Internet that these became a genuine retail model. For the price of a membership fee, customers can access customized meal plans complete with pre-measured ingredients.
The newest trends include in-store and virtual stylists and tailors, customized fragrances, but they are just the beginning. Customers want to be able to share the story about their latest purchase and why it is so special to them.
It used to be that only the very wealthy could afford the kind of V.I.P service that any Joe-nobody can receive today. Loyalty programs, subscription services, and special V.I.P-only events are driving the customer experience. Loyalty points that customers can cash in for special rewards are not a new idea, but now retailers can customize different programs to attract the kinds of customers they want. Nordstrom provides stylists on demand and special sales-preview shopping events and smaller stores bring in special off-hours wine-and-cheese-style shopping events to get customers in the door. Online retailers do the same, sometimes with special limited-time access to pop-up stores or special online discounts. Some stores, like Wingtip in San Francisco has not just a retail store and website, but an amazing social club and VIP membership that can be banked to purchase products in the store. Similar subscription clubs like Fabletic sand Just Fab keep customers coming back with VIP-only deals and a recurring monthly subscription payment.
Amazon raised the bar on checking out from their one-click shopping cart, to 2-day free shipping, to nearly-instant gratification with same-day shipping in some areas, they know that they created a monster in the modern consumer. Like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka, customers want it now. Uber’s delivery options, Amazon’s Prime Now and the myriad of other delivery services are growing because of customer demand. Amazon’s Alexa and Dash are teaching customers that whatever they want is just a word or a motion away. The biggest barrier to this are issues with outdated and outmoded supply chains and manufacturing forecasts. Smart manufacturers and retailers like Amazon and Walmart have been trying to solve these big problems for years, and it is only a matter of time before someone disrupts supply chain with a big idea.
But it isn’t just delivery, customers want additional services like tech support and on-demand customer service whether they purchase their product online or in the store (or both, as is sometimes the case). AI Chatbots are helping customers navigate eCommerce sites to find what they need and, in some cases, even helping with warranties and repairs. Eventually, AI Chatbots will perform even more services. If a product is too difficult to understand, or the process too tedious you could get the sale, only to have to process a return (and lose a customer) in the future.
Even entering credit card information online, or setting up an account can become a barrier to sales. Like Amazon, other successful retailers are utilizing technology to make check out simple. In the future, it will be more than Google Wallet or Apple Pay. Smart credit card companies, like MasterCard are already making checkout easier.
In a 2016 ROI study, it was discovered that 91 percent of customers will independently verify packaging claims. Now more than ever, customers are voting with their dollars and in an economy where every dollar counts — retailers and manufacturers cannot afford to fudge claims. Customers can and will do their research and whether it is GMOs, outsourcing, or the troubling environmental impact of palm oil, consumers are more invested than ever in the products they buy. Best, or worst of all, they let their opinions be known online. Anyone who has watched an Unboxing Video on YouTube knows that customers have opinions about products and don’t like to be disappointed or fooled.
Even though many of people have stopped posting online for security and privacy concerns, an increasing number of people are perfectly willing to give up their personal information to retailers, so long as it benefits them in some way like with more accurate ads or customized recommendations.
Customer Experience Design
In the same way that going to the Mall was less about shopping and more about belonging, retailers today are experimenting with designing customer experiences. Target recently opened their connected home experiential space next to their downtown San Francisco store. They enlisted the help of multi-media experiential designers, Local Projects, to create a state-of-the-art space to showcase their Internet of Things (IoT) offerings. This space doubles as an event space for startups and entrepreneurs to connect with potential customers and test their prototypes. Why would a big box store like Target invest in something so niche? Because they know that IoT will be a 1.7 Trillion dollar industry by 2020 and getting ahead of that and specializing in that market is in their business plan.
Technologies such as geolocation and in-store sensors provide a more contextual experience for customers. Using data mined from customer experiences, retailers can design a better, more valuable customer experiences both online and for brick and mortar — and can even blend the two. The key is reaching out to your customers where they are instead of waiting for them to come to you and once they are there — make it a valuable experience.
You could call it “shopping as a teachable moment,” but truly, some of the best customer experiences are ones where you learned something you didn’t know before. Retail sales people, now more than ever, must be more than just cashiers. In fact, the notion of the human cashier is soon to be a thing of the past. Self-checkout, and check out using mobile devices are not just a cost savings but can increase the importance of real live sales people and their ability to educate customers on the products they purchase.
The New Retail Business Reality
What does this all mean? If you look at these guidelines, more than ever before, price is not a barrier, or not a huge barrier, to sales. However, retailers that don’t follow these new guidelines will become have to overcome new barriers as customers become more acclimated to this new customer-centric business model.
We need to remember what we were all taught — as much as sometimes we don’t want it to be so — the customer is always right.