In the early 2000's, online retail threatened the "bricks & mortar" stores with extinction. The talk was of being "Amazoned", meaning Amazon.com would add your product line to its ever-expanding inventory and render you redundant.
A lot changes in 15 years - and equally, a lot does not change. Bricks and mortar retail extinction has been overstated and the concept of substitution of certain physical channels has given way to providing a complimentary experience that blends digital and real world retail experience.
As a result, omni-channel retail has become the focus as retail shifts from a product centric mindset driven by product selection and inventory logistics, to a customer centric experience that embraces a growing list of customer touch points.
However omni-channel does create some annoying problems for retailers who are used to thriving in a simpler world. The new retail customer is a more informed, opinionated and demanding beast than those looking at the broadsheets for this week's deals at their local super market.
Yet embracing these new customer expectations can create opportunities for retailers too. So what are the customer expectations to watch out for and integrate into the overall retail experience?
- Consistent experience across devices: Customers expect all digital touch points to be fully functional interfaces. With mobile's undisputable importance, customers expect to have a rich retail and service experience in the palm of their hands. This raises interesting debates about an adaptive vs. responsive development of web and mobile properties.
- Beyond product and price: Customer experience and brand perception depends on more than product and price. As an example, customers care more and more about how products are made than they used to. They care about a brand's purpose and what it brings to society. Brands that do harm, don't do business.
- Caring about the whole journey: Customer journeys tend to cut across external channels and departmental silos, and require cross-departmental collaboration. From awareness to post purchase service and support, the customer journey defines how siloed departments need to engage and collaborate to deliver seamless brand experiences.
- Use data to make me feel special: Retailers have a lot of customer information and, combined with online information under the banner of "big data", should be able to offer me something special and unique.
- Mobile is for in-store and out: Mobile app usage is becoming more prevalent in-store. Show-rooming (people price checking on mobile while looking at retail inventory) is a trend that is seen to continue.
- Direct to customer: Brands are cutting out the middle man (read 'retailer') and going direct to customer. More and more branded retail and specialty outlets are appearing in our shopping centers, indicating that these outlets are more focused on expressing the brand than optimising shelf space. Apple is king in this arena.
- Social is shopping: People are passionate about products they covet, buy, enjoy and experience. This means a torrent of social data from every consumer. Retailers can be part of this conversation or not and similarly, be part of the consumers' next buying decision or not.
The new opportunity for retailers is not building a new commerce channel but seamlessly blending the existing channels to create one experience that spans awareness to post purchase support and feedback. Seamless blending of digital and physical channels is here to stay and customers will only expect more integration as time goes by.