As a merchant, you've probably noticed that the only constant in the retail world is change. Retailers that are poised to thrive have an eye to the future of retail and the agility to adapt in real time.
"It's a critical era for retailers," says Atif Siddiqi, CEO of Branch Messenger, a workforce management app designed for retailers, companies and their employees.
"With consumer shopping habits changing constantly, many legacy brands face closure," Siddiqi continues. "On the other hand, retailers positioned to embrace innovation are finding many new opportunities to thrive in the future of retail."
While retail is constantly evolving, the last few years have introduced far-reaching changes, adds Kyle Baptist, founder and CEO of Marconi's Beach Outfitters, which carries beach and watersport gear, and Rules To Retail Consulting, which helps small businesses increase sales.
"The biggest change I've seen is that customers have even more control today," says Baptist. "Many business owners see this as a con, but I think it pushes businesses to adapt to the new age of retail and improve. The winners in the future of retail will be those who can better engage with customers and adapt to their changing needs."
For retailers ready and willing to adapt to the ever-changing retail landscape, the future can be a bright one.
Here are five ways that retail may change and what you can learn from these shifts to adapt your business to today's consumer.
1. Personalized Customer Service
The future of retail will place an increasingly greater emphasis on digital.
"We're now seeing the fascinating digitization of the customer experience, where retailers are unleashing their insights, technology and innovation to offer consumers a wider mix of transactional and experiential channels to engage with at their own convenience," says Jordan Ekers, chief customer officer of Nudge Rewards, a company that help retailers with frontline employee performance and engagement.
The resulting data can help business owners learn about their customers in order to better serve them, says Baptist.
"The more insight a company has about a customer, the better the company can target that customer and create a store focused on sales from that customer," he says. "Marconi's Beach Outfitters has investigated who our customers are and exactly why they shop with us. This information helps us make key decisions for the business."
The next big transformation in retail focuses heavily on the employee. We'll see leading retailers increasingly understand the influence of associates on in-store conversion and overall brand affinity.
—Jordan Ekers, chief customer officer, Nudge Rewards
Such collected customer data will continue to help retailers better target customers when they're in their stores, believes Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst, a facial recognition technology provider.
"Over the past several years, the tech industry has made it easier for advertisers and marketers to deliver more relevant messages, experiences and content to consumers based on their profile and preferences," says Trepp. "We'll see similar innovation for in-store experiences, ranging from personalized offers delivered during retail visits to dynamic ad displays based on who is in the store and some knowledge of their shopping profile."
Another addition to the personalized customer service offerings is proximity marketing, believes Jon Brodsky, country manager in charge of U.S. operations at Finder, a comparison platform and information service.
"Customers will opt-in to premium in-store service through face recognition that enables them to be identified in stores, while AI will analyze their online and offline preferences and make [intelligent] recommendations," says Brodsky. "Tie-ins to make rewards programs stickier will fuel this trend."
2. Hybrid Shopping Experiences
As internet shopping and sales continue to rise, the hybrid shopping experience merging brick-and-mortar and online may become more cohesive and fluid.
"The coming year will see a more mainstream implementation of tech innovations by retailers," says Brodsky. "The use of AI will go beyond customer service chatbots and direct the overall shopping experience.
"For instance," he continues, "virtual shopping experiences will transport you to a store from the comfort of your couch. Additionally, when you're in a store, a virtual personal shopper will point you to suggestions based on your prior shopping behavior."
In the area of shipping and delivery, click and collect will become even more common, adds Baptist. (This refers to buying online and picking merchandise up in-store.)
"We implemented a click-and-collect service that puts other shops out of play," says Baptist of Marconi's Beach Outfitters. "If customers are planning their upcoming beach day, they can simply order in our online store and come the next day to pick up the merchandise."
3. Shopping as an Experience
The future of retail will be about who can provide the best shopping experience, believes Matt Warren, CEO and founder of Veeqo, a multichannel inventory management platform that enables retailers to automate their back offices.
"For the most part, consumers no longer visit stores to sift through product displays and get the best deals," says Warren. "Some huge retail names filed for bankruptcy in 2018, not from a lack of product demand, but largely because people simply weren't excited to visit their stores anymore and could get a more exciting in-store 'retail event' experience somewhere else."
Better in-store experiences are the future of retail, agrees Trepp.
"Retailers will be creating activities to draw foot traffic that would be impossible to replicate online. Outdoor sports retailers have been the leader in this area for years, with brands offering in-store fly fishing lessons, bike paths and climbing walls. These offerings create community and culture, and I believe we're going to see many brands follow suit."
4. No Lines or Cashiers in the Future of Retail
Like the Amazon Go concept stores, no lines and no cashiers are another addition to the future of retail, believes Trepp.
"Picking up merchandise and just walking out of the store and getting charged automatically has proven possible with Amazon Go," he says. "Once other retailers figure out how to scale the concept affordably, it's likely to be initially implemented in convenience stores and small groceries."
If the pick-up-and-go concept works, Trepp believes that big-box stores will carve out portions of real estate to dedicate to the retail model.
"The pick-up-and-go concept could be the success that retailers had hoped self-checkout kiosks would be," he says.
5. Superior Employees and Customer Service
All of the changes in the future of retail point to an enhanced customer service experience. Such an experience is usually only possible when you hire topnotch employees.
"The next big transformation in retail focuses heavily on the employee. We'll see leading retailers increasingly understand the influence of associates on in-store conversion and overall brand affinity," says Ekers. "Employee-focused mobile technology will play a key role, equipping store associates with the tools and information they need to deliver better customer experiences."
To stay competitive in the future of retail, hiring high-caliber employees and training them well has become a necessity.
"Today's customers are becoming more knowledgeable than the employees with whom they interact in stores," says Ekers. "This results in disconnect and missed sales opportunities."
Referred to as 'experience gap,' the phenomenon involves shoppers coming in to buy armed with information from online research about products and their pricing and promotions across multiple channels.
"Shoppers come in intending to leverage the information they've acquired to their advantage," says Ekers. "In order to narrow such an experience gap, retailers would be wise to empower their frontline staff. Store associates have to know as much as customers and be able to upsell and provide a better in-store experience."
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