The retail world of today is very different than it was 20+ years ago (and, yes, I’m old enough to remember). But, like the fashion world, some retail trends are coming full circle and starting to make a comeback (remember thinking bellbottoms would never return?). Retail used to be focused on the customer experience. Do you remember getting excited to go to Woolworth with your grandparents just so you could visit the soda fountain for a grilled cheese and milkshake? Years ago, shopping wasn’t just an ‘in and out’ thing. It was an all-day outing with the whole family. It was an experience.
In the last few years, we have seen retail go in the complete opposite direction and focus on convenience rather than the experience. In-store enhancements enabled customers to find products faster (i.e. aisle labels in The Home Depot) or get customers out of the door faster (i.e. self-checkout technology). Many people no longer had the time to spend the afternoon shopping or browsing in a store. They want what they want, and they want it now. And fast. Ordering online has skyrocketed and some people never even step foot into the store. With the abundance of on-line purchasing sites, even products we never dreamed we’d buy on-line are now just a click away. Or, if you are visiting a store, you might never go through the door as associates can bring your on-line order out to your car at the exact time you arrive!
The rise in artificial intelligence has created a ‘love/hate’ relationship between the customer and the store. Customers might receive an influx of marketing messages based on products they bought in the past but have no intention of buying in the future. Alternatively, AI’s ability to create better targeted promotions tend to be a plus for the price conscience consumer. Voice activated products like Alexa or Google Assistant, while creating an easy method for ordering product quickly, have some consumers hesitate to adopt for fear of big brother listening.
We’ve seen a whole new buying experience unfold with the ‘subscription’ model. I can now send friends ‘the gift that keeps on giving’ with FabFitFun or spice up my wardrobe on-going with StitchFix. I can even have meals delivered with all the necessary ingredients on a regular basis with Home Chef or Hello Fresh. Even our decision-making process has been replaced with AI capabilities that select products based on previously known likes and dislikes. Bet we couldn’t have imagined this 20 years ago!
With rumors of the ‘retail apocalypse’ and daily news of big box closings, retailers are scrambling to stay relevant. Returning to the customer experience whether on-line or in the store, suddenly has moved to the forefront. In addition to making sure they have the right product in the right place, brick- and-mortar retailers are looking for a reason to get people to come inside rather than buy merchandise online. For example, Fleet Feet uses FIT technology to ensure that athletes are using the right running shoes. They will send you a 3d model of your foot to keep, for free! Sur La Table has more than 80 stores with in-store cooking schools taught by employee resident chefs with over 600,000 students annually taking advantage of these classes.
On-line stores are adding more chat capabilities to enhance the customer experience as well as creating super convenient return packaging in the initial delivery ‘just in case’. Retailers like Sherwin Williams have an enhanced web site to enable you to visualize a room in your house with certain paint colors.
So, whether on-line or brick and mortar, retailers are clearly creating new ways to appeal to shoppers. Clearly, for those not thinking outside the box and creating innovative ways to create exciting customer experiences, survival is not an option!