In its heyday, the shopping mall was a browser’s paradise. But much like the styles in any window display, retail trends evolve quickly. According to analysts at Credit Suisse, up to 25 percent of all malls in the U.S. will be shuttered by 2022.
It’s not just malls at the mercy of tumultuous retail evolution. Both online and brick-and-mortar-based businesses are being challenged to change or face extinction. The ones that survive these challenges will likely do so by embracing rising retail trends as solutions.
Challenge #1: The intent-driven consumer
In its Winter 2018 Consumer View, the National Retail Federation states that, “Nearly six in 10 [consumers] said the ability to easily find what they want is one of the most important factors in selecting a retailer.” Since they extensively research purchases online before buying, most shoppers now prefer a streamlined experience rather than spending time browsing through a huge selection of items.
As Rick Rodriguez, principal UX designer at online retailer Jet.com, puts it, “When a shopper sees hundreds of racks of clothes at a department store, they’re being inundated with a high cognitive load. We need to show them we’re not trying to sell them everything, we’re trying to sell them the right thing.”
According to Rodriguez, retailers should capitalize on the current trend of matching in-store experiences to their online counterparts. Popular clothing retailer Modcloth did this with its pop-up shops and a permanent store, by curating a unique in-person shopping experience that mirrored its online presence.
“Don’t show them things they don’t need to see,” he says. “Give them a showroom experience. Match what they’d see online — great product photography and info and reviews — only with the ability to try things on and feel them.”
Challenge #2: The push for personalization
Laura Ceccato-Chopp is a senior vice-president at Aquent. She sees personalization as a defining challenge for today’s e-retailers. “If I’m shopping on a site or app, I want it to do the work for me. I’m too busy,” she says.
Ceccato-Chopp describes an instance where one well-known retailer wowed her with a personalized experience: “I liked a shoe someone was wearing on The Bachelor. So I took a picture of it on the TV, sent it to Nordstrom’s virtual shoppers, and they found it for me. They showed it to me on site, I picked my size and color and they shipped it to me in two days.”
Luxury-level customer service is one way to provide a personalized experience. But in order take it a step further—to predict what customers need before they even have to ask—retailers need elegant data analysis.
“We want to personalize, but we want to do it at the right moments,” explains Rodriguez. “We can only do that with a strong set of ethical algorithms that pull data and make recommendations that are helpful but not intrusive or completely off-base.”
Challenge #3: The multi-channel consumer
Data has helped retailers come to terms with a future where shopping isn’t confined to stores; after all, it’s hard to ignore studies by the likes of Deloitte and Forrester, which indicate digital shopping’s influence over more than 50 percent of in-store sales.
“Five years ago they didn’t understand how alternative channels like social media would create revenue,” says Ceccato-Chopp, “Now they know, and they’re scrambling to put it into play.”
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as launching an Instagram account or a YouTube channel. Retailers must consider all the touchpoints in the customer journey—including live events, like the 20,000 holiday parties organized by Walmart in 2017; innovative mobile experiences like the AI-powered color matching in Sephora’s Visual Artist app; or interactive advertising like Tilly’s augmented reality window displays.
“With multi-channel touchpoints,” says Rodriguez, “users can feel ownership over the shopping experience rather than being forced to shop in a specific category within a specific store.”
Stay ahead with smart hires
By executing a thoughtful workforce strategy, retailers can capitalize on current trends and ready themselves for those yet to come. User experience is a smart place to start. Jet.com’s UX focus—which included honing products through ethnographic research, eye-tracking and other user tests performed at its “Savings Lab”—helped it land a $3.3 billion valuation and an acquisition by Walmart.
Now Rodriguez advocates for an enhanced UX presence in any retail organization. “UX experts shouldn’t just be involved, but involved from the start [of a project]. They can provide empathetic insights into the customer journey, as well as sensible touchpoints for emotional moments. Design thinking earlier in the process can eliminate a lot of heartache later on,” he says.
Ceccato-Chopp has also witnessed the benefits of better UX staffing; Aquent has helped global organizations achieve measurable results by building out UX support from the ground up. She explains, “UX is our sweet spot. We’re constantly filling roles that focus on user interface, shopping carts — all the elements essential to closing the deal. With these hires, retailers are upping the game with AI and making it easier for customers to find what they need on the site.”
Rodriguez also acknowledges that an emotional approach must still have a foundation in research, and the most successful UX teams unify the two seamlessly. “Build out analytics and research teams that can glean insights from trends and then connect them to your UX team,” he advises.
As with any strategy, it’s important to link data-based initiatives to relevant KPIs. “Gathering data is one thing, but how are they using it? How are they turning insights into revenue streams?” Ceccato-Chopp asks. “This is the constant challenge, but Aquent is getting in front of that trend. Our people do data analytics and they execute on those insights.”
Lastly, Rodriguez stresses the importance of savvy product managers—a role so vital to multiple stages of the product lifecycle that PMs are often referred to as the “CEO of the product.”
“[A great product manager] won’t just to add to scope but enhance a feature. They’ll maintain a balance between customer-centric and business-centric approaches.”
We’re at a crossroads for retail, and there’s no way to predict the exact path it will take in the coming years. But by staying aware of challenges, remaining open-minded to the current best practices for overcoming them, and hiring adaptable subject matter experts that bridge the gap between customer experience and data-based intelligence, you can make your business virtually disruption-proof.