The landscape of retail is changing rapidly, and businesses like yours are pressed with new and daunting challenges. You know the central issues: A rapid rise in digital commerce; impediments to supply chain; quickly shifting buyer expectations; working in the shadow of industry titans; and a variety of continuing impacts of the COVID era. To help you navigate this ever-adjusting world, Expert ENGINE held interviews with retail thought leaders in our longstanding network — like retail veteran Steve.
During his in-depth interview, Steve weighed in on the retail landscape overall and holiday shopping. After spending 30 years in retail leadership for extremely well-known department stores, Steve now consults on trade, purchasing, management, planning, analytics, financial forecasting, and wide-ranging planning support. We talked about eCommerce, changing expectations in workplace and home attire, and adjustments in consumer demands.
Three Key Factors in Retail
Delivery time. Expected cost. Consumer experience. Every retailer must weigh the impact of these three factors on their customer’s journey each time they release and sell merchandise. Steve observed that household names assured product delivery in 5-8 days… until a few years ago. Retailers had worked on the assumption that their customers came to them prioritizing an experience — a relationship — over and above the next-day or same-day shipping Amazon offers today. Shopping online allows customers to get exactly what they’re after — at the end of the day, everyone is there to buy something — at the expense of a pleasant interaction or salesperson’s expertise. If anyone is mastering one side of that offset, it’s Amazon. Steve notes they’re working strides ahead in giving consumers a wide variety product solution and access to information. The benefit of Amazon shopper reviews outshines their competitors by volumes when it comes to testimonials of quality and speed.
Unfortunately, Steve notes that on a number of fronts, “there is no beating them.” That’s not fatalism from Steve — simply a blanket statement of Amazon’s chokehold on a set of factors consumers use to make decisions on where to shop. So, what’s a retailer to do? They must separate and focus on differentiators and specific offerings. If a retailer tries to beat prices and product selection and fulfilment times, Steve argues, they’ll lose on all three variables. The point of difference, then, becomes elevated experience — which can mean strong service and customer care, as well as a curated assortment that makes shoppers happier.
The Use of Brick and Mortar in Retail Today
A benefit to Amazon’s competitors — perhaps to some retailers’ surprise: Customers throughout the U.S. continue to enjoy and even prefer brick and mortar retail. Steve estimates that 70% of all returns from online purchases at a major retailer are brought back to the store’s physical location. Strange? Customers choose and buy items on their phones, laptops and tablets on the couch just to avoid going to the store — then, afterward, recall the “deep physical connection” of shopping in person, wishing to tap into its comforts and advantages. Factor in wait time (as many as 10 days for a mailbox run and return online), and omnichannel retailers suddenly have “an interesting opportunity” to capitalize on the interdependency between online and physical stores. Retailers are already tracking success with a buy-online-pick-up-in-store hybrid model that maximizes customer flexibility at home alongside the physical connection, importance of instant gratification, and sales staff assistance that can only come with brick and mortar. During the COVID age, Steve opines, curbside pickup expedited the success of these hybrid models. The transactional nature is just one element. But the experiential is huge — “something different than just buying stuff.”
How Malls Are Evolving for Retail
What are some retail stakeholders doing to stay on top of these trends and desires? In many shopping malls, retailers are making use of the showroom. They’re recreating customer desires in a physical sense for personalization and activity. Consider the persistent popularity of Tesla and Peloton customer trials. The goal isn’t actually to sell that equipment. It’s to create an experience that will be not only enjoyable but memorable for the customer. Piloting such products in person offers the customer a reason to go to the store, keeping the physical location “relevant and interesting.”
The Rise of Casual Wear
Here’s a trend most Americans understand all too well: The rise of casualization in the workplace and at home. For a full 3-5 years before the COVID era, Steve had observed a major shift toward “competent casual” attire. Across the worlds of both tailored suits and women’s office dresses, Steve has monitored an increasingly casual set of expectations for workplace apparel… which translated to much less formal clothing choices outside of work. Irrespective of WFH and isolation, he would have expected a continuation of this trend in the last year or so — but now he notes a “fundamental rethinking” of workplace appearance and expectations. He predicts that “work from home is definitely going to be a part of everyone’s life” — much more so than before COVID set in. Whether employees go into work 20% or 50% or 0% of the time, Steve forecasts the “home office” will serve as a centerpiece of how we all spend our time.
Hence a rise in the “fuel” toward casual clothing, personal comfort, and the philosophy of athleisure. These trends — already happening — enjoyed a “total boost” in 2020 and 2021, and Steve only expects a continued uptick. Even when we do go into the office, workplace attire will almost certainly be more casual. Now luxury and high-end retailers have been forced to pivot quickly. Where they once offered a go-to for “career wear,” they are moving as rapidly as they can toward the proliferation of comfort clothing.
As we look to the future of retail, it is important to start acknowledging trends and making changes today. How will you create a new strategy as we head into 2022? What can you expect as numerous aspects of the retail landscape continue to change? In our next installment of the “Shopping Insights from Retail Experts” series of blog posts, we’ll share Steve’s continued thoughts on the Amazons and Wal-Marts of the world; today’s global supply chain imbroglio; disruptive approaches to direct marketing; and widespread blends and adjustments between online and physical retail.
Steve is just one of the many talented professionals in Expert ENGINE’s network of highly skilled and specialized experts. If you are interested in working with an expert on a project of your own, please reach out to get started.