We all know the old saying, "the customer is always right." When the retail and service industries originated and popularized the phrase, it was primarily about making sure that we were meeting consumer needs in the category. (Whiter whites and brighter colors. No more frizz! More peanut-y goodness.)
We still need to do that, of course. The need to get the product right is stronger than ever. But there are other sets of needs these days, brought on by the always-connected consumer. For example:
- The person that's never more than five feet -- usually even less -- from a screen
- The person that can type 140 characters and potentially reach millions
- The person who gives something three stars instead of two
Today's retail customers are constantly connected and that has made them savvier about price comparison and information gathering. They've also completely reset expectations for engagement with, or about, a brand. Radical shifts in consumer behavior are shaking up the industry in profound ways. Far from creating only problems, however, these new customer dynamics are creating more opportunities for savvy retailers to drive connection and sales. It may be harder to do everything right, but the results are worth it. Here are seven key consumer trends that the best and brightest retailers are responding to -- and turning to their advantage.
The era of the omni-channel shopper is in full swing
Until recently, brick-and-mortar and online businesses were often managed separately, with different strategies, teams, managers, and executives driving each business.
But the customers don't see themselves as dot-com customers or in-store shoppers. They want to be able to buy something online and return it at the physical store. Or the reverse. They want shopping that allows them to call the shots. They want to see a product or sale in a store and find it online to show their friends later.
It's one big shopping universe to them. Smart retailers have a strategy that maps to consumers as they move from online to in-store and back. Following the omni-channel customer journey helps the brand engage with the customer at the right time and in the right way.
Consumers enter stores better armed and prepared
Because millions more shoppers do their research before hitting the checkout line and making a purchase, there has been a power shift. Consumers are far more knowledgeable about pricing, products, and offerings. In turn, retailers have less explicit control over information and experience. No longer are customers walking into stores looking to a salesperson for advice and guidance. They enter informed or with a mobile tool in hand to get informed.
Lots of data show that consumers are more likely to be influenced by peers and online reviews than by a rep on the sales floor. But the growth in consumer power hasn't made the best retailers pack up their toys and go home. They are capitalizing on the trend by enhancing their real-world and digital shopping experiences. Many are integrating and personalizing all of the touchpoints reaching each individual based upon a deeper understanding of individual needs and purchase patterns.
They're even connecting people with other consumers who have used and reviewed a product to provide that final encouragement or permission to buy. For example, a growing number of online retailers are integrating consumer videos into their sites and apps.
Showrooming is growing as a retailer opportunity
When showrooming began, many retailers were convinced it was bad news. The conventional wisdom was that the sale would always go to the cheapest seller, likely an online-only property without the complexity and expense of maintaining physical stores.
But the latest research shows that showrooming can be more of an opportunity than a danger for the savvy retailer. Showrooming instances are an opportunity to connect with customers in new ways. Mobile devices let customers compare prices and products and look at reviews while in-store, but also open the door to new touchpoints. For example, when customers search for a local store, they usually only see an address and phone number and maybe a website link. But now stores can take advantage of this channel to provide information, offers, and other links. Consumption of a retailer's rich site content while in-aisle can drive more retailer interactions and sales. And when a retailer already has a relationship with a customer, they can use these new touchpoints to deliver tailored communications based on what they already know about each shopper -- something that listings on a comparison site can't do.
Mobilized shopping is changing the in-store experience in new ways
Many research studies show that the majority of customers are using their phones while in stores -- at least some of the time. But it's not just for price comparisons. They are seeking advice, visiting a retailer's site for more info, taking selfies to get opinions on a new outfit, keeping track of their kids as they wander, or getting the best deals via iBeacon-triggered coupons. Wi-Fi is increasingly expected inside stores.
Retailers must constantly respond to these consumer changes. The best retailers are doing just that. Many marketers I know are spending more of their time thinking about the mobile and showrooming experiences of their sites than what their dot-coms look like on laptop. They're not trying to throttle in-store mobile activity but rather use it as a new element of an integrated customer experience informed by united data.
Consumers expect content in addition to product listings and ads
Due to the growing content cravings of consumers, many retailers are starting to look more like media companies. Retailers are increasingly becoming content machines, from generating social content and blog posts to turning their catalogs into mini-magazines.
Personalized advertising and web content are driving greater relevance and brand engagement, and consumers are rewarding brands that generate or showcase high quality product-related content with their attention and purchases. Consequently, retailers are developing rich partnerships with the content leaders to leverage their ideas. Visit your favorite retail website for examples. From content partnerships with HGTV to expert-led branded blogs, retailers are upping their content game in myriad ways.
Many retailers are seeing that while Facebook and Twitter are great environments for content, blogs are still fantastic for delivering rich content. And one of the most important trends in affiliate is bloggers as affiliates, where esteemed content creators can connect their product recommendations to places where they can be purchased. This trend has been accelerated as all of the sources of value for incremental sales are becoming evident.
Social media is creating brand openness
Consumers demand open and honest communication from brands and view engagement with a brand more akin to person-to-person communication. Those stores that mess it up get flayed. These days, the retailer must have a concrete action plan for the angry customer who uses his digital soapbox to publicize complaints.
But more and more retailers realize that they needn't be paralyzed by the potential social media dangers. We're learning that customers -- angry or delighted -- understand that we are all human. They don't expect perfection. They expect ownership of one's own actions.
The rule of thumb here is to be direct and personal on social. Own your mistakes. Nobody is expecting you to be perfect. But it's more than just owning up to an error. Since consumer opinions now carry more weight than ever, retailers who are doing it right are taking advantage of these communications to engage with the customer. For example, when someone posts a negative (or even positive) review, brands should be there to engage and provide proof that they are listening. And today, brand campaigns are frequently tailored based on customer feedback.
Demand for shoppertainment is becoming the rule not the exception
Perhaps originating in part from the shorter attention spans of the youngest generations, shopping is increasingly incorporating entertainment to put people in the aisles. Brick-and-mortar stores are adding elements of entertainment to draw in shoppers, even bringing in musicians and authors to encourage consumers to come in. Bloomington, Minnesota's Mall of America features theme park rides and attractions.
Digital is following suit. From "making of" videos for TV commercials, to musician interviews on musical instrument sites, to webisodes of branded content, to elf games at Christmastime, retailers recognize that they need more to draw people in than 200x200 product shot GIFs.
Retail has long promulgated the notion that the customer is always right. Perhaps the massive changes retailers are making in how they do business are best understood in that context. The one thing that we can be certain of is that the face of retail in 10 years will be completely different, and the customers, who are still always right, will have a major hand in shaping that future.
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"Retro image of businessman holding a creative light bulb" image via Shutterstock.