The Future of the Brick-and-Mortar Retail Experience

Projections about the death of retail stores are creating a lot of buzz. Macy’s and JCPenny are making cutbacks and closing several stores across the country. Sears is closing their flagship store in Chicago. But is it really fair to say that this is a precursor to the death of the brick and mortar store? I mean, video didn’t really kill the radio star, did it? The radio star had to reinvent itself and is still alive and thriving. The same equation can be applied to the brick and mortar store. It was a recurrent topic of discussion at the National Retail Foundation’s BIG Show this year.

Brick and mortar stores need to embrace technology and reinvent themselves so as to be geared toward a more consumer-centric experience. Single channel (physical store only) retailers might be facing that much talked about imminent death, but not the retailers who integrate a cross-channel or infinite channel approach as we call it. Rapid advancements in technology provide many options to maintain relevancy. The question is if retailers can keep up and embrace these changes wholeheartedly.

So what can be done? Matt Pillar, editor-in-chief of Integrated Solutions for Retailers summarizes some of the points that Rick Caruso made in his keynote speech at the BIG Show this year. Caruso suggested that businesses should look to our ancestors for inspiration and focus on creating a sense of community around the in-store experience. We definitely cannot dismiss this notion as disillusionment. But it cannot be the only aim. There is certainly something to be said for the human connection. It needs to be combined with other opportunities to create a well-rounded and truly delightful experience.

Technological innovation, creativity, and an infinite channel approach will be the key to success here. What makes consumers choose online over the in-store experience? More choices, assortment, ease of purchase, access to reviews, etc. The first thing businesses need to focus on is a seamless integrated consumer experience across channels. This means going beyond just keeping the offers and promotions consistent across all channels. For instance, Nordstrom created an in-store display of the popular products that were pinned on users’ Pinterest pages. Now that is an inclusive strategy that will definitely grab a consumer’s attention when they walk into a store, and help in creating a consistent brand image.

Businesses should optimize the plethora of consumer data available to them in order to better understand consumer behavior. This will help them to use social media and mobile applications more effectively to deliver targeted advertising. When deep consumer data is combined with deep product data, we can ensure that the right product information is delivered to the right person at the right time. This is what we call product data science. We will explore the potential of technological options like geo-fencing, iBeacons, and wearable tech for retail in future blog posts. Stay tuned!

A big advantage that physical stores have over online stores is the presence of store personnel. An unenthusiastic and unengaged store staff that doesn’t have the product insight that the consumer is looking for doesn’t encourage the consumer to buy. In fact, it might even be counterproductive. In-store experiences need to be highly social, engaging and delightful in order to drive sales and brand loyalty. Take REI for instance. The expertise of their in-store staff nurtures the building of a trusting relationship. I like that a sales associate takes the time to exactly understand my outdoor needs and suggest the right product from the right brand. A truly satisfying in-store experience combined with their loyalty program certainly propels future transactions with the company.

The future of the brick and mortar stores hinges on the ability of businesses to adopt new technologies and augment them with superior customer experience. There is no alternative to reinvention but this is not the end. It might be the beginning of a new beginning.

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