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The Future of Retail Isn’t Digital. It’s Experiential.

Amazon. Wayfair. Etsy. Zappos. Online shopping is Godzilla rampaging across Main Street, cutting a path of destruction through our once quaint retail world.


With more brick-and-mortar store closures announced so far this year than in all of 2018, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the end of traditional retail. But the fact is more than 90% of retail sales still take place offline, in physical stores – and in Canada, according to Statistics Canada, it’s actually around 97%.

And, in spite the tales of doom and gloom, it turns out it’s actually digital brands that are going back to the future and opening their own stores in the real world. Apple, of course, was one of the first. But a slew of successful virtual brands from Warby Parker to Casper are doing the same.

So, now that the sky isn’t falling for traditional retailers, what does it mean for what’s next?

The answers may lie in some eye-opening insights from a recent study “The Blended Commerce Imperative”, prepared by WisePlum, a Verde Group company, Google and the Retail Council of Canada. Among the white paper’s tantalizing findings:

  • Traditional brand loyalty has faded and loyalty to online channels is dwindling. Consumers, it turns out, are really only tied to where they get the best service and experience – and retailers with both physical and online stores have a better chance of providing consumers with what they expect.

  • Consumers want speed, selection, service, experience and price. In other words, they want it all and retailers that aren’t offering omni-channel shopping and frictionless transactions are quickly losing market share.

Futurist and founder of Retail Prophets Doug Stephens puts it this way: “We as retailers have to make a mindset shift. We have to stop thinking of stores as places to distribute products and we have to start thinking about them as places whose primary role is to deliver an experience.”

Put another way: Today’s successful retailing is no longer simply about how to dress up your store or e-commerce website with product offerings – it’s about a more compelling way to communicate your brand’s story.

Reinventing your brick-and-mortar stores

If your roots are in traditional brick-and-mortar retailing and you’re struggling to compete in an unfamiliar and uncertain new world, here are three things you can you do to recapture your customers and turn things around:

  1. Move beyond transactions and think about relationships. For all their bells and whistles, online retailers still need real world interaction to build customer loyalty long-term. The same is true for traditional retailers. Consumers are savvy and fully immersed in the digital world and they’ve likely done their research online. So when they arrive in your store they’re not necessarily looking to buy, they’re looking to shop – they want a memorable experience to connect with your brand. Once they’re connected to you, they’ll be more likely to buy from you, whether it’s in-store or online.

  2. Take small steps to improve your in-store experience. To elaborate on the first point, think about your stores less as places to buy and more as a multi-sensory channel to build your brand. Your employees aren’t primarily salespeople or cashiers but brand ambassadors whose primary role is making a connection, not a sale. Consider as well the utilitarian parts of your store and how you can create seamless, frictionless encounters with your customers. Apple and Sephora come to mind as leaders here with sales associates ready with mobile devices so customers can pay anywhere in-store. But it’s not just about a more convenient POS experience. From the way you display to who you hire, what other steps can you take to create a better brand impression every time customers walk into and through your store?

  3. Rethink your metrics. Consider new measures of success that revolve less around same store sales and more around how much time customers are spending in your store and whether their impression of your brand is improving over time.

At the end of the day, more and more retailers, online and off, understand that technology only gets them so far. For most customers, that’s the price of admission and from here on in, they want more human interaction, not less. With traditional brick-and-mortar stores here to stay now’s the time to figure out less traditional ways to to use them to create memorable experiences so you can drive loyalty and grow your business.

By Paula Courtney, President and Founder WisePlum



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