5 ways retailers can succeed in a future they can’t predict

More from Shop.org 2017

View coverage of Shop.org, held in L.A. Sept. 25-27, 2017, on the event recap page.

The old rules that defined corporate success don’t apply anymore — businesses are being forced to carve their own way. Speaking at NRF’s Shop.org conference in Los Angeles in September, Trevor Hardy, CEO of The Future Laboratory, said one of the biggest challenges is the “insane trust vacuum in the world today.” The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer says corporate/brand trust is at an all-time low; there’s a new contract with customers, and businesses must be more engaged and active.

Hardy laid out some ways businesses can renew trust.

Radical transparency. Technology is driving the ability for businesses to be more transparent, Hardy said, providing tools to talk to consumers and show them aspects of the products or business they may not have heard about. He pointed to beauty brand Deciem, which uses plain language on packaging to clearly demonstrate what’s in a product — no marketing buzzwords — and the website of H&M’s new ARKET brand, which offers shoppers the ability to browse by country of origin or materials.

Civic duty and education. Businesses are stepping in where governments are failing, Hardy said, acting as a force for good in society. “Customers feel we have a responsibility to drive social change in the countries and the communities in which we operate,” he said, and they want retailers to deliver knowledge beyond the products and brands they are purchasing. Westfield’s 2016 “How We Shop Now” survey found that 49 percent of New Yorkers and 56 percent of Londoners would like to learn a new lifestyle or creative skill at their favorite store. Levi’s Music Project, which launched in 2016, introduces students to sound engineering, audio-visual production, mastering and songwriting.

“The future of tech in retail is to make the retail experience more human.”

Trevor Hardy

Service. While technology is clearly changing retail, Hardy reminded attendees that it’s a tool to help drive business success. “The future of tech in retail is to make the retail experience more human,” he said — Farfetch’s “store of the future” concept, announced in August, integrates tech while maintaining the human element. The concept, Hardy said, enables staff to be in-store influencers rather than simply being there to facilitate a sale and make sure something is available on the shelf.

Hyper-localism. Consumers are looking for relevance and a connection to the brands they support with their dollars; Hardy said there’s a craving for more localness. Technology can help answer that demand — retailers have tremendous amounts of customer data they can use to personalize the shopping experience — but it needs a grassroots approach as well: Pernod Ricard’s Our/Vodka brand is sourced from independent distilleries; Amazon’s new Seattle headquarters will include a homeless shelter.

“Explorium” retail. The race to frictionless shopping has taken the joy out of the experience, and it’s up to retailers to reintroduce complexity. Show the journey to purchase, Hardy said — facilitate the journey rather than dictate it. The “Music Matters” campaign at Selfridges in London is turning the department store into a performance venue for a few months, letting customers enjoy the store in a different way. It’s a change from focusing on sales per square foot to “enjoyment or wonder per square foot,” he said, and balancing the two to make a better business and a more engaging customer experience.

Focusing on regaining consumer trust may feel like a distraction from the important business of making money, but it’s that focus on the long-term that makes businesses successful. Retail is good at moving into new areas as markets and consumers change, Hardy said; it’s the move to a culture of thinking for the future that must happen.