The convergence of a pandemic, economic turmoil and a heated presidential election can make it difficult to look beyond the here and now, but shoppers nevertheless expect retailers to have a long-term vision. Consumers are recognizing that major companies can play a large role in shaping tomorrow — both in terms of their influence on society at large and the post-COVID-19 shopper experience, according to the Visions Into The Future report by CallisonRTKL.
Now more than ever, retailers can’t just passively look for safe avenues for investment when it comes to planning for the future. Companies need to come across as leaders, not hesitant followers, and good leadership entails taking risks rather than consistently playing it safe.
“I think you have to lead, and I don’t think you can lead by saying, ‘Well, 50% of our customers just shifted over to this, we think that’s going to be a growing trend and it’s going to hit 60% in the next 12 months so we should get ahead of it,’” said Paul Conder, VP at CallisonRTKL in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “That’s looking in the rearview mirror, because your customers are miles ahead of you. When I think of Nike’s work with Colin Kaepernick, what you see if you look at that in retrospect is that they took a lot of heat for it. They deserve a lot of props for it, and I think that came down to what kind of brand they wanted to be.”
Thankfully, the shift to digital caused by COVID-19 has actually made it easier for retailers to lead, due to an uptick in direct communication. Shoppers are more comfortable than ever when it comes to reaching out to their favorite brands. While this creates challenges when it comes to ensuring these conversations are two-way, it also creates a golden opportunity for retailers to listen to and understand their shoppers better than ever before.
“The idea is that you can get the barometer from your customer, take a stand on something that’s relevant to them and actually modify how your business works because a lot of things are far more transparent — that’s kind of how you want to do it in the big picture, and you can use social media channels for that,” said Conder. “I wouldn’t suggest that you go after every whim of your customers, but temper that through your own knowledge and brand, and also sort of think about where you want to be in the future.”
Retailers Must ‘Focus On The Steak, Not The Sizzle’ Of The Shopping Experience
The restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 have forced retailers to enhance shopper benefits any way they can, for example with additional pickup and delivery options and more seamless omnichannel services. These were differentiators pre-pandemic, but going forward the ability to provide a streamlined shopping experience will become table stakes.
Same-day delivery and rapid pickup are quickly becoming commonplace, and “It’s going to be something that’s very hard to turn off,” said Conder. “We haven’t done a study on this yet, and it will be interesting to see, but I know colloquially and from my own personal experience that we’re making decisions based on availability and how quickly things get to us. The convenience factor is already acting as much more of an indicator of the purchase decisions, and that’s not going to go away.”
CallisonRTKL’s report suggests that retailers looking to streamline the customer experience should “focus on the steak, not the sizzle” — i.e., reduce friction by improving backend features like data infrastructure rather than make more visible but ultimately less effective changes. The current environment is serving as a proving ground for in-store upgrades, with lower traffic levels giving retailers an opportunity to experiment.
The bottom line for retail’s future is that companies need to evolve, both in terms of their place in society and the services they offer their customers. While these trends aren’t new, the pressure the pandemic has placed on both retailers and customers has accelerated the timetable for meeting rising customer expectations.
“Some retail has less to do than others, some retail is going to have to evolve a lot, and some retail brands are probably just going to go away,” said Conder. “It’s not evenly distributed throughout the entire retail industry. I think in general what we’re going to see, especially with COVID-19 accelerating this, is that the physical stores will be a node in an omnichannel journey, and they will be rethought from the point of view of how they exist within a digital-first retail strategy. That doesn’t mean that stores aren’t important. For a lot of categories, they are the best personal connection that you can have to a customer; they represent the brand better than any other environment.”