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CHANGE MAGAZINE – Surfing Retail’s Shifting Waves

Savvy brands and retailers stay ahead of consumer expectations by recognizing shifts in how and when buying decisions are influenced, cementing channel-agnostic relationships, and shaping expectations. 

While barrels of ink have been spilled about the dramatically shifting retail landscape in America as we approach the 21st Century’s third decade, there is one area where most experts agree when discussing retail’s future – Staying ahead of, and shaping consumer expectations, is a winning strategy over merely reacting to increasingly segmented markets.

Retailers, merchandisers and brands that influence their markets with innovation in design, utility and customer experience will attract and delight consumers and build relationships and brand loyalty that can pay big dividends.

Adopting successful strategies in the changing retail environment means upping the game of marketing campaigns, promotions and connecting with consumers in both new and traditional ways. And despite the increasing presence of online commerce, print and graphic communications continue to play a unique marketing role in these efforts. 

Singular Brand Relationships 

Connecting with consumers today is evolving across retail platforms and needs to be agnostic to channels whether they are online or in-store. A singular brand relationship with consumers is one to be strived for according to Carol Spieckerman, president of the retail advisory firm, Spieckerman Retail. 

“This idea of operating in separate channels has gone by the wayside,” says Spieckerman. “It’s more about having a single view and trying to have a singular brand relationship with a customer, albeit through different touchpoints. It seems like just a shift in terminology, but sometimes shifts in terminology can make all the difference in terms of understanding what’s going on.” 

Spieckerman noted in the current retail environment, not every path is a “path to purchase.”  She suggested engagement is a valuable metric as consumers are often evaluating many data points as they consider products and services.

“The journey to engagement can be just as valuable as the journey to an actual transaction,” says Spieckerman, noting valuable consumer information can be collected along the way. “With consumers shopping around, doing searches, retailers can gather data on all that activity, and just that alone has value, whether or not a transaction actually happens.”

Walmart, Spieckerman noted, is a retailer that has enthusiastically embraced this concept to their benefit.

“I give props to Walmart in terms of making a major shift toward understanding this path to engagement,” Spieckerman says. “They also understand the need to reach out to customers, not by forcing them into two or three options that are maybe profitable or easy to execute, but actually, they’re setting the standard in the new metric, which is providing choice.”

She cited innovations such as drive up, drive through, home delivery, same-day delivery, buy online, pickup in store, big format, and small format as examples of how the retail giant is leading and shaping customer expectations. “Walmart really embodies this idea of embracing choice and embracing a channel-agnostic engagement model.”

Shopping as Decision Making 

A related shift in thinking about retail gaining traction is found in exploiting the science and data analytics behind buying decisions.

In her TEDx talk, The Science of Shopping and the Future of Retail, Devora Rogers, former senior director of retail insights for Inmar, a technology and data science firm, argues that shopping is all about decision making. She believes getting to “yes” in the purchase decision involves interacting with many data points along the way.

“We found shoppers use 10.4 sources on average for information in a buying decision,” says Rogers, noting this is an average of high (automobile) and low (ice cream) consideration purchases. Rogers noted what’s changing at retail is how these decisions are being made, specifically the number of sources is growing.

The implications for marketers is insightful. Content creation, consumption and the shaping of product experience beliefs give opportunities for brands at many touchpoints: In-store, online, packaging, influencer marketing, brochures etc. and suggest plurality of messaging can drive engagement towards purchase.

“Shoppers are looking for better shopping experiences, not necessarily newer shopping experiences,”says Rogers.

Better shopping experiences occur before purchase – whether in-store or online. Promotions and campaigns help shape this at many levels.

Features and hard data still sell. Advertisers and marketers ignore fact-based influencing at their own peril in the current environment.

Alice Donoghue, a Toronto-based technology developer, works with various forms of technology, from mobile apps to virtual and augmented reality, argues brand promotion needs a heavy dose of hard facts for consumers to latch onto as a point of reference in their purchase decision-making.

“Living in the age of the internet and constant information sharing and seeing how social media platforms such as Facebook are changing models due to discomfort at its ability to mutate facts, I think consumers want very transparent, fact-based campaigns,” says Donoghue. “Using influencer marketing in combination with hard facts, evidence and real-world use cases may be the way to sway customers a retailer’s way.”

Content Marketing and the Role of Print Communications 

Given the vast number of touch points consumers meet with brands and cacophony of clutter they are likely to encounter, brands that deliver messaging and content that engage their markets can win in the battle to differentiate and break through more consistently.

“In marketing everyone chases the shiny new object,” says Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a brand consultancy. “There tends to be a cluster around the new and marketers can forget the old. But what happens is if everyone is chasing Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and the social media channels, is these get oversaturated and consumers are bombarded with messaging where it is difficult to differentiate.”

Adamson said while consumers, particularly millennials, are indeed spending an increasing amount of time in the digital space, print continues to play a practical role for marketers.

“Print as a vehicle is a less cluttered space to tell your brand story,” says Adamson.  “People behave differently when reading print publications, as opposed to digital. They browse and linger. Advertising works better for most situations in print because when people are online they are in a utility or hunt and find mode. Sometimes they are browsing but most of the time they are functionally driven, they are looking for something. They may be searching while shopping, but often they are in the mode of screening out what they don’t want to hear. When in print, people tend to be more open to browsing. Print is still a powerful way to tell many brand stories.”

With high consideration purchases such as washing machines and cars, consumers’ decisions to buy is made over a much longer period than consumables such as food or books. These are areas where print advertising can be a key part of an overall campaign.

Choosing the right mix of channel distribution is as important as the messaging itself, according to Spieckerman. She says the most relevant way to look at all content from a retail and brand marketing perspective is in terms of the Three M’s: Mix, media, and message.

“Content is everything from social media posts to in-store signage to print catalogs to advertising to user-generated content, YouTube videos and influencer marketing,” says Spieckerman.  “All of that and more rolls up to retailers’ overarching content strategies. Now the conversation becomes, what is the ideal mix? What are the media, in other words the outlets for the content, that make sense? And what is the message that goes through each?”

Shaping consumer expectation is the new responding, says Spieckerman and it will be the retailers and brands who get ahead of consumer trends and directly influence them, that will get a larger slice of the pie.

“The retailers that are getting ahead, and that are going to be successful in the future, are not in the business of just responding to what consumers want. They are actually in the business of shaping their behavior.”

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