The pace of change in retail over the last five or so years has been arguably the fastest ever witnessed, with retailers adapting to customer demand for increasingly sophisticated services via in store, online, mobile, social and other channels. Interestingly, as retail rapidly evolves, this appears to be educating the customer to be even more demanding, with raised expectations.

The polarisation of retail between “convenience” and “retail theatre”

Successful retail usually ties in with our basic human needs and today, two highly significant – and seemingly opposite – customer trends are becoming key drivers for retail evolution, particularly on the high street:

  • People who are “time poor” and demand “convenience” and speed of service; and

  • People using shopping as “a social/leisure activity”, demanding “entertainment” through “retail theatre”

Increasingly, retailers are being expected to cater for these two sets of customers concurrently, which is very challenging.

“I want to know where it’s available, park outside, pay and leave …”

The “time-poor”, seeking convenience, need services such as store locators, appointments, click and reserve/collect, 24-hour collection lockers, one hour delivery and so on. For example, UK retailer Argos offers a range of online and mobile services to locate what you need and make sure it’s available. Once in store, everything is tailored towards payment and collection in the shortest possible time, from being able to park outside to self-serve ordering, collection and payment kiosks, and from late opening to out of town locations. Argos also offers the Shutl service that offers delivery within the hour.

Hointer, a US apparel retailer which sells jeans to men (a group notoriously happy to minimise shopping time …), puts QR codes on their jeans so that customers simply scan styles they like and assistants quickly bring the correct size to the changing room. They also have a payment unit in the changing area, allowing the purchase to be completed without going to a checkout queue.
Expect retailers to increasingly offer services that help reduce the purchase journey (such as store/product location services, appointments and self service facilities), provide better all channel interactions (for example, recall of a website wishlist in a store) and a transition of existing services to convenient digital formats (such as receipts, loyalty and coupons/vouchers).

 “Pour me a coffee, I’m going to be here for a while …”

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those demanding “retail theatre”, who want an engaging experience and are willing to spend time interacting in a personalised/social way.  Retailers are using a range of digital tools including interactive screens, tablet-based clientelling, augmented reality, personalised products etc to provide that magic “wow” moment. Done well, customers feel emotional engagement with the retailer – not the separation of seller and purchaser – and become loyal advocates within their social circles.
At Burberry, a UK retailer, customers are greeted by assistants who use clientelling iPads to quickly understand previous purchases and likely interests, encouraged to sit and enjoy a drink, be inspired by giant catwalk screens and generally feel inspired by the brand. Many of the products are now tagged so that the heritage and design can be revealed.
Clarks, a UK footwear retailer, have recognised that the store environment during the back to school period can be unpleasantly noisy and chaotic, with long waits. They have installed some giant touch screen “entertainment panels” that encourage group participation for kids in simple games, changing the shop floor into a calm, fun place where kids and parents like to go. The panels can be repurposed during other times, for example, displaying catwalk videos to change perceptions about the brand and even to deliver staff training outside opening hours.
Ideas can be simple, too. C&A, a Brazilian apparel retailer, have an electronic display on hangers showing the number of Facebook “likes” that product has received, so people can see how their peer group rate the item.

Expect to see an increasing number of retailers who use physical spaces – including pop-ups – to showcase the brand experience rather than product, and using a vast range of digital tools and services to demonstrate how products fit into people’s needs and lives. The missteps are likely to be the times when the retailer gets excited about a new technology and forgets about the customer.

“Do we jump to the left or the right …?”

Retail is now evolving at an unprecedented rate, and likely to continue to do so.  However, customers still want the same fundamental experiences that they always have done and digital transformation is offering new and better opportunities to fulfil these needs. One major trend evident today is that retail is becoming polarised between “convenience” and “retail theatre”, often within the same channel, and retailers will have to accommodate both.  All customers want to feel valued, to be entertained, to nurture, to collect, to share and so on, and have wants and needs that are broader than just retail. Retailers who understand these customers needs, and transform themselves appropriately, are likely to see superior return on their investments and to outperform their peers.
Retailers who fail to balance the competing customer demands of Time Poor versus Theatre Retail will find themselves losing customers, both online and in stores, to competitors!