Despite the meteoric rise of digital retail in recent years, most retail sales come from physical stores, and bricks-and-mortar remains a priority for retailers. But how do you create an in-person shopping experience that keeps customers coming back in an age where digital convenience and fun are constantly evolving?
Ahead of Retail’s BIG Show 2017, executives at apparel retailer Gap, grocery and foodservice retailer Smart & Final and Kellogg’s NYC cereal café offered their insights on bricks-and-mortar strategy, ideas on how technology can help drive consumers to traditional stores and some predictions on how the bricks-and-mortar experience will evolve in the years ahead.
Online shopping has ushered in a new era for retailers that allows them to offer more products to a broader audience than ever before. But it has also reinforced the vital role that bricks-and-mortar stores still play in consumers’ lives.
According to Anthony Rudolf, founder of Journee, which worked with Kellogg’s to create Kellogg’s NYC cereal café, the growth of online retail brought consumers an unprecedented level of choice.
“Not only choice in the ability to get what you want but the choice to choose efficiency over hospitality and the human connection,” he said. “The in-store experience will never be able to compete with the online experience in terms of efficiency or access to a broad range of goods.”
And yet, Rich Stefani, VP of information technology for Smart & Final, a chain of warehouse and foodservice retailers, argues that bricks-and-mortar fulfills basic human needs at its core. “Whether it’s trying a new watch or selecting the freshest strawberries, there is a need to validate purchases with more than one sense (e.g., touch, sight, smell),” he said.
Roger Kibbe, Gap’s senior director of global customer experience and logistics technology strategy, agrees. “For apparel, the distinctive physical experience of being able to see, touch and try on [items] … simply cannot be replicated online.”
Using tech to serve and delight
But virtually every retailer knows that this isn’t an “either-or” proposition — no retailer is choosing between online and bricks-and-mortar. In fact, today most successful retailers use technology — whether it’s an app or new point-of-sale system — to augment the overall bricks-and-mortar experience.
Smart & Final’s Stefani describes how the company has embraced mobile technology in its bricks-and-mortar stores to assist sales clerks and improve the customer experience. “The original idea here was to remove the shackles of managers from their office and get them onto the sales floor to interact with customers. One of our ‘homegrown’ apps is essentially a store manager’s toolkit, providing all the information you could ask about an item.”
Gap’s Roger Kibbe echoes this idea, agreeing that technology should assist sales associates and managers and provide access to more product information. But he also warns that it can be a distraction. “The key is to have just enough technology to encourage a customer to look more, touch more, try on more and buy more. Technology should be an enabler of, not a distraction from, the distinctive physical store experience.”
Rudolf admits that Kellogg’s NYC has “kept technology to a minimum intentionally” but has found some creative ways to put it to good use. For example, Journee’s buzzer system helps build anticipation among customers.
“After a guest places an order, they receive a buzzer with an LED screen. When it goes off, it lets them know which cabinet to retrieve their cereal from — very low-tech and simple but full of surprises. There is anticipation built in with the buzzers as people wait for them to go, which creates excitement when they do.”
“As people shop more online, they’ll need to be remembered and recognized at their local shops more. They’ll crave it.”Anthony Rudolph
So how will the retail store of the future differ from today? It depends on who you ask.
Kibbe predicts that future bricks-and-mortar shops will come to assist, inspire and educate shoppers. “The store of the future will be optimized to serve the customer during their shopping journey, whether it be at the beginning to inspire for a future purchase, at the middle to better inform a purchase or at the end for the actual purchase.”
Given the growth of online retail, Rudolf expects that consumers will long for a more local, mom-and-pop shop feel — the kind of place where people know your name. “We’ll see a reemergence of niche stores over the mega one-stop-shop stores with a focus on service,” he said. “As people shop more online, they’ll need to be remembered and recognized at their local shops more. They’ll crave it.”
At the same time, Stefani believes that “the ‘store of the future’ will provide a level of awareness that is unprecedented in retail,” he said. But this awareness does not come without its own set of unknowns. “The difficult question we face is how much information and in what format do we provide it to customers to mitigate the information overload occurring now.”