Consumers shopping in droves via eCommerce channels is hardly a piece of breaking news — for the better part of a decade, that has been obvious to anyone watching the retail space.
But, as the just-released PYMNTS “Commerce Connected Playbook: Retail Innovation Edition” indicates, the interesting thing to watch is not that digitization is happening, but how it is happening. Particularly among younger consumers, the millennial and Gen Z “digital natives,” who, by the numbers, show a much greater affection for the physical store than their boomer parents and Gen X older siblings do.
So why aren’t digital natives shopping digitally?
They are, Fiserv Senior Vice President of Retail Solutions John Nicola told Karen Webster in a recent conversation — and in great numbers. But, he noted, these consumers also have been raised on a more refined version of the retail experience by way of players like Apple, Tesla and other forward thinkers — and it is that hands-on experience they’ve come to enjoy and appreciate as an extension of their digital commerce journeys.
“As we look at those younger consumers, and I think of my own children as they definitely love to have experiences, and part of that is going into physical retail stores to see and touch the product,” Nicola said. “They see things on social media, they have been reached through direct marketing, email marketing, text marketing, etcetera about a product. A natural next step is to go actually feel, get expert instruction, or ask questions.”
As of today, given the host of rather unprecedented events going on in the economy because of the coronavirus, those omnichannel experiences, he noted, have been put on hold since in-person retail for all but groceries, medication and other household essentials is more or less on pause nationwide. But, he said, the crisis at hand also presents an opportunity for brands and retailers across the spectrum to consider their omnichannel offering — where it is, where it needs to be, and how they’re going to provide it.
The key concept to understand is that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is an accelerant of the retail trends already in place before the outbreak began. The unusual circumstances have turned up the pressure, and only the players ready to move beyond omnichannel table stakes will have a chance to emerge stronger during the recovery than they were at the start.
What Every Brand Needs For An Omnichannel Experience
Operating in omnichannel is a requirement, Nicola said, to any serious merchant now more than ever. But knowing there is a need to do something is very different from having the faintest idea how to do it. And the question is complicated because the needs of every player in the market are different, created largely by the wants and requirements of their customer base.
That said, there are things every player has to do if they want to even have a chance at success. The first watchword, he told Webster, is simplicity — it has to be easy for customers to log in and be part of digital engagement. That means transacting capability needs to be there up front — a digital presence isn’t a catalog or merely an opportunity for display, it is a commerce portal that gives consumers a choice as to how to serve themselves.
Choice, he said, has to carry all the way through the payment experience — right down to the offering a consumer can easily access.
“The choice may be credit, it may be debit, or it could be alternative methods, especially in retail,” he said. “We’re seeing a massive influx of installment payments, with consumers being able to budget their payments over the next six to eight weeks, or even into one or two years. But retailers must enable consumers to do that digitally and make it easy for them to choose the payment method that they want to have for their transaction.”
But, Nicola noted, beyond offering the choice, it’s also incumbent on merchants to deliver on that choice to meet consumer expectations. Buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS) ordering and product information has to be up to date in real time so the consumer order is ready fairly immediately. If it’s a quick-service restaurant (QSR) order, that timetable for preparation and delivery is measured in minutes, not hours. These kinds of real-time capabilities, Nicola said, can present a challenge, particularly for firms whose legacy architecture configures their digital and physical operations as totally separate entities.
The challenge, he said, is to create a technological orchestration layer that unites all the various components — the mobile app, website, physical stores — and connects them all to be able to give consumers the real choice they’re looking for.
The Next-Level Future
When those baseline choices are in place, he said, what can be provided via an interconnected network is powerful. It’s the ability to leverage data gleaned about a customer to push them more relevant offers, build more relevant rewards, and offer them the complete experience.
“Take what you know about a consumer to build a delightful and intuitive experience that gets them to those next spending thresholds,” Nicola said. “Retailers are there to match the consumer’s needs through simple engagement and understanding.”
The merchants that will emerge from the current situation, he said, are already doing that. They are leveraging their digital channels, they are pushing engagement in different ways on mobile, they are building up demand and interest among their consumer base across their various digital touchpoints because the physical ones are currently shut down. They are experimenting with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tech, and they are trying different commerce outreach paths on social media.
They know the physical world of retail will re-open for business — and omnichannel merchants know that for the next generation of digital consumers, a physical retail experience can be kickstarted well in advance with an online channel.