Retail

Making Shopping About The Shoppers (Again)

One would expect that a event called the Retail Innovation Conference (RIC) would be a veritable brainstorm of big ideas as to how to improve the woeful retail space in the U.S.: mobile payments, beacons, online-to-offline and so forth.

Although those concepts (and then some) were bandied about at the most recent RIC, held in New York City last week, perhaps the most unlikely “big idea” to emerge from the event was defined as such (“unlikely,” that is) because, for so long throughout the history of retail, it existed as a central tenet of the industry:

Focus on the shopper.

As Retail Dive found in its experience at RIC, many analysts believe that somehow — and fairly recently — retail has lost its way in that regard. And that might be the root cause of a lot of the problems in which retail businesses currently find themselves mired.

In his speech at the conference, shares the outlet, shopping behavioralist Ken Hughes remarked: “We’re not really shopper-centric … Everyone in this room runs a business where they think that they are shopper-centric. But, in reality, retail is a logistics game, an operations game, a supply chain game, but it’s not a shopper game, really.”

But logistics are important. Supply chain is important. Retail operations are important. Without sufficient attention paid to those elements, online retailers cannot thrive in their increasingly competitive space, while brick-and-mortar retailers are already, by and large, well behind their eCommerce brethren in all of those endeavors and can scarcely pause them to come up for air without placing their very future in further peril.

It is well-established that retail consumers — particularly the younger ones, millennials, who, by virtue of their age, represent retail brands’ best opportunity (among adults) for long-term loyalty — increasingly desire the seamless integration of convenient technology in their shopping activity. Doesn’t it follow, then, that by working very hard to put innovative technologies in place in their operations, retailers are, in fact, focusing on the shopper?

Yes and no, it turns out.

Where retail innovation efforts do not cross paths with the end consumer — and are, therefore, ineffective — is in the all-too-common instance when they’re being made solely for the sake of innovation.

The Retail Dive story goes on to describe how Hughes, in his remarks at RIC, gave some examples of the fruits of this navel-gazing labor, from objectively goofy products, like umbrella ties and lipstick stencils, to more carefully planned but still ultimately off-base offerings, such as the high-tech touchscreens he had recently observed in the fitting rooms of the Rebecca Minkoff store in SoHo.

The impression that Hughes got was that “people used [those touchscreens] to play but not to shop,” thus his conclusion: “Sometimes, we go overboard in terms of throwing technology at a problem that might not exist.”

How can a retailer become more knowledgeable of problems that do exist for the customer, then, and work to address those specifically?

As Retail Dive points out, the particulars of that answer vary according to the company (JCPenney, having not long ago found itself in a veritable death spiral, financially speaking, was forced to effectively overhaul its entire operation from the ground up in order to begin getting back on track; smaller retailers, by contrast, might only need to make more targeted and focused adjustments) … but there is one through line in nearly all cases:

The modern retail consumer (including those millennials we mentioned) is, in his shopping habits, increasingly more desiring of experiences than he is of simply more stuff to buy.

Another speaker at RIC, Kasey Lobaugh, chief retail innovation officer at Deloitte, shared with Retail Dive that his company is soon to release (this week, in fact) a report that proves out this new paradigm of new experiences being favored — and sought out — by retail consumers over new products.

In that sense, what was once old in the retail game — pleasing the customer — is new again.

And shoppers themselves are, collectively, the new disruptive element in retail … as they once were before (but nobody seemed to notice at the time).

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