Alex Johns discusses why the future of retail is connected
It is without doubt the shape of retail has changed over the last ten years. It’s a commonly held belief amongst retail experts, trade press and brand owners that the retail industry is in flux. The way consumers search, browse and purchase goods is altering the face of retail beyond recognition. Social shopping, 'webrooming', click-and-collect, dark stores and now drone deliveries, are all challenging the norm. However, what can be said with certainty, is that the future of retail is connected. Connected retail means delivering for your customers whenever, wherever and however they want, and the experience being the best representation of your brand, no matter the channel. Consumers expect to get the same service online and in-store and if they see an advert on TV or social media, they want to shop quickly, easily and interactively. Connected retail is about bringing all your different channels together to deliver this seamlessly.
The new normal
Retail experts are now talking about omnichannel retail as the solution to growing customer expectations for connected retail experiences. A super-slick buying experience absolutely is the right way forward, however, without the right foundations in place, this approach can quickly become an expensive and clunky exercise, costing more and depleting already tight margins. To be truly omnichannel, it's crucial to have strong strategy and expertise as well as understand that the start of any journey towards genuinely connected, omnichannel retail involves data analysis. Only by understanding your customers’ buying habits can you develop a service to suit them.
Great data analysis can help us understand what your customers really like, which allows us to design wonderful shopping environments both online and offline. But how many brands today can say they have truly nailed this? Not many. And sadly, we have seen many recent failures with the once great brands such as Austin Reed and BHS closing their stores for good. Their problem? Not reflecting on the changing needs of their customers. In the case of Austin Reed, their key competitors Charles Tyrwhitt and Hawes & Curtis, invested heavily in ecommerce platforms at a time when Austin Reed didn't. The outcome was clear - Austin Reed became very tired, very quickly and eventually failed to keep up with the competition.
Are agencies adapting too?
I look with interest at the agency landscape, particularly within retail, and sadly not much has changed. Brands and buyers still think in boxes, work in big procurement departments and hire multiple uncoordinated agencies. Yet somehow, they expect different, connected results. I was recently in a meeting with a multinational retail brand and their COO talked about hiring a digital agency to better their front-end design, expecting this to be the solution to their wobbly digital offer. My first thought was how incredibly outdated this was – to offer a digital solution that your customers will be delighted with involves so much more than front-end design. Surely he understood the need for consumer data, integrated warehousing with online shops, offline stores and back-end logistics, innovative delivery options, marketing campaigns and up-to-date social media reach? But then the afterthought hit: whilst I completely understand that the future of retail is connected, I also know why it’s difficult for brands to keep-up. The mounting pressure of consumer expectations coupled with the need to trade both online and in-store is forcing retailers to make a lot of swift decisions about their brands. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, these decisions are painful, costly and ill informed. To cut-through in today’s changing retail landscape, retailers have to realise that they’re no longer islands. The future of retail is connected and if brands want to position themselves for growth, they simply must partner with agencies that offer more than a single solution in one area of expertise.
The connected agency
If consumers are constantly demanding a fresh approach from brands, brands should require the same from their agency partners. They should expect a bolder approach, a hybrid, which delivers everything under one roof: consumer research, superb design, exceptional operations, expert technology advice, fresh social media and innovative advertising campaigns. Here at Ebitt, we call this the connected agency approach. I’m on a mission to spread the word about Ebitt, the UK’s pioneering connected agency. We provide a one-stop-shop for brands that want to cut-through and accelerate faster. In today’s landscape, great results can be delivered, but only if retailers and brands think differently about their own businesses. The old way of doing things no longer works and it’s time to make some changes. Whilst we all know that success doesn’t happen overnight, brilliant results await the bold and the brave.