I had the opportunity to attend the Retail Council of Canada’s STORE Conference from 29-30 May, where the importance of the evolving customer journey, personalization, and retail experience were the major topics of discussion across speakers.
The evolving customer journey: research and voice
The customer journey has changed significantly over the last five years thanks to greater consumer access to and uses for technology, among other factors. The journey seems poised to further shift in the next three years. One example of how the journey is changing is in how shoppers discover and research products before buying them. Eric Morris, Director, Retail, at Google Canada, highlighted two examples of how shopper behavior has shifted. First, according to Morris, “everything today is a high-consideration product.” Where previously a consumer might only research high ticket items, Google searches for everyday items like lipstick have increased rapidly, reflecting the fact that shoppers now do online research for purchases they previously would not have researched at all. Second, Morris notes that Google has also seen searches for lists – Christmas gift lists, for example – increase rapidly, reflecting the fact that customers now increasingly turn to technology before they even know what they plan to buy.
A number of speakers touched on the role that voice searches and voice-activated personal assistants will play in retail and e-commerce contexts in the years ahead. Mario Lemieux, partner at DAC Group, estimates that by 2020 50% of all searches will be conducted via voice. Lemieux went on to identify five factors that will be key for successful voice strategies: localization; user-generated content; optimization; content curation, and media amplification.
Personalization and customer centricity
A second major theme from the STORE Conference was the importance of personalization of retail and of putting the customer at the center of business decisions. Many attendees, including Loblaw Companies Ltd President Sarah Davis, highlighted the link between loyalty programs and personalization, and the role that personalization plays in marketing. Loblaw Companies Ltd has 13 million Canadians in its recently-combined PC Optimum program, which, per Davis, the company leverages to create personalized weekly offers. Another interesting example of personalization was shared by IBM iX’s Chief Experience Officer, North America Kelly Mooney in the form of 1-800-FLOWERS. 1-800-FLOWERS customers are frequently shopping for gifts for others, and the company lets shoppers input the gift recipient’s social media profile so the company can make better product recommendations.
The Wharton School Professor of Marketing Peter Fader highlighted two common pitfalls for organizations pursuing customer centricity as a core strategy: applying machine learning to questions it is not well-suited to answer (or arguably worse, using machine learning to answer questions that don’t help a company make effective decisions), and assuming that customer centricity means putting all of your consumers at the center of a company’s decision-making. A much more effective strategy, he argues, is to identify your most valuable customers and focus the company’s customer centricity efforts on this cohort.
Retail experience: today a differentiator, tomorrow table stakes
A third recurring topic through the STORE Conference was about how important experiences in retail are today – and how they will only grow in importance in the years ahead. Per Google’s Eric Morris, “[companies] are competing with the best experience a consumer has ever had” – and not only against the experiences offered by other retailers, but by companies from other sectors such as Uber that set consumer expectations very high. KPMG’s Willy Kruh, Partner, Global Chair Consumer & Retail, and Partner-in-Charge High Growth Markets, shared that in KPMG’s top 10 lessons for retailers, “customer experience is the key to success” is the very first lesson.
Retail Prophet’s Doug Stephens added urgency to the importance of experience, predicting that as value increasingly goes towards “high fidelity” and “high utility” retailers, organizations that deliver run-of-the-mill experiences will struggle to survive. Stephens also suggested that as people increasingly live their life through their devices, real experiences will only come to be more valued. Stephens highlighted the gourmet food retail format Eataly as an example of a retailer that is succeeding at this crucial task.
Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet wrapped up his presentation with the statement that “too many brands are waiting for the future to tell them what they get”, rather than “executing and engineering the future [they] want.” Throughout speakers and conversations at STORE was the recurring message that retailers must actively pursue and embrace changing dynamics with consumers, emerging technologies, and new business models in order to thrive in the years to come.