In real life: the troubled state of retail experience

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The high street as we know it is in a state of flux. We have established brands closing multiple outlets, LK Bennett and M&S just two examples. And we have more and more brands moving online – the recent move of Majestic Wine (already at 45% online sales), now rebranding as its more successful online-only stablemate: Naked Wines. Two hundred retail outlets will close as part of this move.

Arguably, online is good for entrepreneurship: dozens of small online fashion retailers are springing up around the market channel that is Instagram, able to reach a huge audience directly. But it’s not enough just to sell your product any more. More and more brands are entering a strange crossover space in the name of “omnichannel”.

On one hand you have brands that are attempting to replicate the human experience online, for example Thread.com’s AI, which uses algorithms to select pieces for customers based on a preference quiz at the beginning of their subscription. On the other hand you have brands opening or repurposing stores as real life showrooms for their digital business, as spaces which provide leisure “experiences”. This trend is illustrated by etailers like Cherry Moon, who have just opened their first bricks and mortar store in Chelsea - with a bar and event space.

The question is, in a world where online retailing is gaining momentum, how many event spaces and showrooms does a brand need to stay close to its customers? Will our high streets transform into giant “third spaces” selling coffee and offering free WiFi to showrooming homeworkers? Will our high streets actually end up empty of product? And does this matter? The dystopian Black Mirror episode that envisaged an Amazon style warehouse gone rogue is surely just nonsense.

Right?

Maybe the dystopian vision is coming true. Time was when a customer experience was defined as the sum of all a customer’s interactions with a brand: across stores, phone calls, face to face and on its website. Now, many people interact with brands purely in the digital world: but is that what they really want in this age of mobile-driven stress, tech-related overwhelm and always-on notifications? An age where 'digital detox' is a normalised activity?

Digital disconnect

When Oracle conducted a study recently asking consumers and retail executives the same questions about their desired experience in bricks-and-mortar stores, the gulf between the answers from each group was startling.

The consumers were all about being able to touch the merchandise, talk to a friendly expert and walk out having had an authentic human interaction. But the retailers didn’t see that. They were were all about VR, AR, avatars, virtual mirrors, AI, NFC, geotagging and the 'omnichannel experience'.

In groping their way towards the vision of omnichannel it seems that retailers are caught in a web of expectations about technology, while customers are yearning for an authentic real life experience.

What we end up with is a schizophrenic melange of auto-refilling, VR-mirroring, shockingly wasteful packaging and checked-out checkout staff. And over time people will shop in stores less and online more, because the experience isn’t so different - and it’s frankly less hassle to stay on your sofa or at your desk.

In fact the biggest issue around delivering omnichannel is less around packing stores with flashy tech and more about truly knowing the customer. The online and offline experiences are different and should remain so, but the omnichannel experience is driven by connection with the customer - what did they buy last time; did they use the discount voucher; have they tailored their preferences?

Connecting the information means that the human store staff become more like concierges than checkout drones and they actively enhance the real-life experience with information shared online. This isn’t about bars and event spaces but more about demonstrating how well you know your customers and how well you can meet their needs.

What if you could dial your in-store experience up to “personal shopping consultation”, or down to “quick browse at lunchtime” to suit you? Balance this with efficient shopping from home and simple cheap delivery and returns and your customers start to get the best of both worlds.

How do we turn sharing information with a retail brand into something that intrinsically and immediately adds value to the customer’s experience? We need to recognise our customers online and in reality. There are a couple of guiding principles to acknowledge here:

  • Recognise the relationship your customer wants with your brand and respect it. If they update their preferences make sure that info is available at a store level; if they’ve recently received a catalogue make sure their discount code is already loaded up for in store purchases.
  • Understand the value offered by online and offline experiences and maximise it: online ordering needs to be convenient, seamless and efficient; buying in-store needs to be sensory, joined up and helpful. Look for best-practice models in each space and optimise relentlessly.
  • Personalise by putting the customer in control, giving them the tools to customise their experience with your brand both online and in real life for example the skin tools used by cosmetics brands like Clinique – they have online and in-store versions as the kick off to a relationship.

Above all, look for moments in the customer journey when the brand can have a bigger personal impact simply by joining the dots in your customer knowledge: that’s omnichannel in real life.

Jen Musgreave is strategy partner at RAPP UK

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