The retail industry is changing so quickly and deeply that whatever is happening today resembles nothing like last week’s news and will be completely different a week from now. Increasing bankruptcy filings, shifts in-product demand, and more conservative spending among consumers — as much as retailers want to blame the pandemic, these challenges are essentially an acceleration of long-needed change.
Shoppers continue their adoption of a blended approach to retail as the crisis evolves. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, consumer use of buy-online, pick-up-in-store channels grew more than four times since 2014, according to a global IBM Institute for Business Value survey, in association with the National Retail Federation. This trend continues its upward trajectory, as more than 75 percent of consumers shared, in a separate NRF study, interest in BOPIS services and 90 percent of those who tried it consider the curbside experience convenient.
While such a shift is occurring out of necessity, some analysts predict that some aspects of a contactless, socially distanced customer experience may be here to stay. Retailers that use this moment as an opportunity to reflect, rethink and reset their business models will position themselves for a recovery that will take shape in unexpected ways.
Four shifts toward a new normal for retail
Consumers rarely adopt channels in an all-or-nothing fashion. They tend to leverage a little bit of one touchpoint and a pinch of another and smash them together to design the best experience that meets their needs.
In response, retailers must become experts in re-creating the brick-and-mortar store experience for consumers who are not ready to shop in a physical location. This capability is best achieved with the right mix of optimized operations, well-trained workforce and technology enablement that captures the advantages of four shifts toward retail’s new normal.
- Live interactions with store associates — from home
One of the best aspects of shopping in a brick-and-mortar store is engaging with store associates. Personally, I enjoy receiving their counsel on arrivals that complement previous purchases, learning about the benefits of a new face cream, or hearing the latest styling tips that can improve my personal look.
Even if consumers are not ready to set foot in a store, they can still receive the same experience from the comfort of their own home. A variety of collaboration tools — such as Zoom and Cisco WebEx — are available to allow associates to show off the store floor and existing inventory. Plus, it enables the shopper to walk through their closets, bathrooms, or anywhere else in their home to simultaneously consider new items they didn’t know they needed to purchase.
- Self-shopping beyond the store shelf
When Amazon launched its site, consumers received their first experience with checking themselves out and receiving their purchases at their front door a day or two later. What if shoppers can do the same at their favorite retailer?
Consumers can browse, select and buy items as they move around the store with the ease of a mobile app. Then, when they are ready to walk out, the app automatically finalizes the transaction with their credit card on file. Gone are the frustrating moments of waiting in a line at the checkout counter or for a store associate to pull away from another shopper to finalize the transaction — just pure simplicity, speed and convenience.
- Clienteling 2.0
Appointment booking can become another tool that retailers use to engage a more personalized shopping experience — whether online or in the store. Once reserved for luxury brands and retailers, scheduling a specific time with a stylist guarantees the one-on-one attention people crave and the confidence that everyone in the store is safe and engaged. Most of all, that sense of security and high-quality service entices consumers to increase their transaction volume.
- Personalized delivery
Consumers don’t just want to receive their purchases the same or next day. They also want them to arrive in ways that are more environmentally sustainable and fulfill their unique needs.
The ability to choose the exact day a package comes or pick it up curbside at a local store adds to the level of convenience that’s in high demand. Their purchases come not only in fewer boxes and fewer trips for the delivery truck, but also when and where they expect them.
A comeback that centers around the customer experience
The next few months will require retailers to unify the online and offline worlds, a challenge dependent on technology and that most human of elements: trust. Consumers will expect retailers to serve them on their terms, deeply in tune with their lifestyles, needs and safety.
Such a shift in retailing will require a new perspective on blending physical and digital experiences, personalization and unprecedented convenience. Robotics and artificial intelligence may be central to supporting automated warehouses and driverless car delivery. Even automated business models and real-time connection for service and fulfillment could become the standard consumer expectation.
What does the future hold for your retail business? Whatever it is, get ready. It’s going to be an exciting journey to becoming your consumer’s trusted partner at a time they need you most.
Robin Barrett Wilson is an industry executive advisor for fashion at SAP.