The importance of retail renaissance as shoppers seek new in-store experiences
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The importance of retail renaissance as shoppers seek new in-store experiences

The importance of retail renaissance as shoppers seek new in-store experiences

Physical stores are making a comeback and will play a significant role in retail in the future

Gulf Business

Retail seems like a simple business, but it is getting ever-more complex. If ‘know your customer’ is a basic requirement for successful retailing, then retailers – and especially store managers – are set for a tough 2022 as customer behaviours continue to change and expectations shift. The good news is that footfall is back above pre-pandemic levels in the Middle East – thanks to the region’s distinctive ‘mall culture’ – as shoppers want more ‘touch and feel’ before buying. The bad news is that understanding the expectations of in-store shoppers is getting much harder. This is crucial because the balance of power in the retail domain is now firmly with the shopper. Recent research illustrates this.

Kearney research in the UAE suggests that shoppers now prefer to go in-store to shop for certain very personal items such as clothes, bags and accessories, which need more touch and feel. These same shoppers also want the ease and convenience of e-shopping, attractive prices and ‘enhanced shopping experiences’.

This ties-in with the findings of our own 14th Annual Global Shopper Study, which showed that globally, two-thirds of consumers are returning to stores but not to the same pre-pandemic shopping behaviours. Most (73 per cent) want to get in and out of stores quickly and half of them are researching product pricing online before they leave home. Beyond this, nearly one-third are even checking store inventory before leaving home (only 19 per cent did this in 2019).

These shoppers know what they are looking for and come armed with information and ideas, from online stores, websites and social media influencers. This is what we call true omnichannel shopping behaviour and is illustrated by the fact that one-third of consumers say they use their mobile devices to lookup competitive prices or browse online websites for products during their shopping trips. Worryingly for retailers though more than 70 per cent confirm they have recently left stores without all the items they wanted – half of them because of out-of-stocks. This means it is more critical than ever to engage with shoppers in store.

Research shows millennials and Generation C – also known as the ‘connected consumer’ – favour the physical store experience and want to go to stores but shopping is now all about stories and no longer about transactions. It’s not about finding things to buy but what the purchase adds to the shopper’s story and how it forms part of their story, as a personal statement.

Pity the poor sales associates. More than half (58 per cent) of shoppers say it’s faster to get information on smartphones than ask associates – and the majority of associates (64 per cent) agree. This means retailers don’t even know when their in-store customers are considering mobile commerce (m-commerce) purchases (possibly with competitors). More than 25 per cent of surveyed shoppers have placed click-and-collect m-commerce orders while out shopping.

Shoppers now expect all the choice, convenience, access and speed of online but with the added value of the ‘theatre’ of retail stores. This means sales associates are coming face to face with very smart shoppers with a short attention span and expecting a shopping experience and a connection with the store team, which should become part of their shopping story.

The vast majority (84 per cent) of retail decision-makers are aware of this ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) trend, and are looking at how to meet customer expectations and ‘save sales’. This is positive because the majority of shoppers don’t want to spend their money with another retailer, and most would be willing to buy an out-of-stock item before leaving the store if they could pick it up at one of the retailer’s nearby stores or the item could be delivered to the home.

Retailers looking to respond to the challenge need to understand the motivations of this new shopper. Retailers must also have the vision to look at everything from technology to staff training – from the vital first impression to the final frictionless payment, and the entire customer journey in between – to deliver the shopper experience the modern shopper demands.

Do retailers need to train staff and empower them more in store? Do they need to hire different kinds of people and train them differently? Some London retailers are recruiting associates from stage schools to – almost literally – put the drama back into the theatre of retail, with the right training of course. They recognise that associates are not just uniforms at the point of sale.

Every associate is a point of customer engagement – staff are frustrated at dealing with better-informed customers than them and retailers need to allow staff to think more like a shopper, with natural personality, experience and training, and the personal technology support to give the shopper the best store experience. They should also be empowered to solve customer problems (stock, sizes, delivery or collection) and even take mobile payments – connect with the shopper and become part of the customer’s story.

The ROI is the sale, the customer experience (and word of mouth) but also the data collection opportunity – and so the possibility of greater customisation and personalisation of the shopper journey. This application of technology (customer data and insights gathered even before a store visit) and use of mobile devices in-store (customer engagement and payments) can help take retailing to another level through data driven decision making.

The pandemic has changed shopper behaviour. Physical stores are making a comeback and will play a significant role in retail in the future but the key to unlocking retail success remains: know your customer.

Looking ahead to 2022, retail will get easier for customers and harder for retailers. Middle East retailers are rising to the challenge.

Mark Thomson is the retail industry director EMEA at Zebra Technologies

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