How tech is driving change — and the need for retailers to be nimble

If the title “Wizard of Retail” belongs to anyone, it must be Marshal Cohen. For 20 years, Cohen has ranked as the go-to retail guru for retailers and retail media in his post as chief industry advisor for research and consulting firm NPD Group. Cohen also is the author of two industry-influencing books, “Why Customers Do What They Do” and “Buy Me! How to Get Customers to Choose Your Products and Ignore the Rest.”

Marshal Cohen HEADSHOT
Marshal Cohen

A sought-after retail industry speaker and regular media presence on television and radio, Cohen began his retail career in the training program at Bloomingdale’s, where he worked his way up to merchandise manager. He is also founder, owner and president of Motive Marketing Group.

Cohen envisions the United States as a nation on the cusp of enormous change that could soon turn the retail experience on its head. He talked about these mostly tech-driven changes — and the urgent need to be nimble — with STORES freelance writer Bruce Horovitz.

What is the secret sauce to being a great retailer?

Being nimble enough to be able to recognize that if you put something in motion today, it will be outdated by the time you execute. You have to be quicker and more sensitive to how things are changing.

Why don’t most retailers do this?

Because they are too big and have too many processes in place to move the bar. By the time they finally get around to it, months or years have passed. The change process is just too slow.

What’s the very first thing you look for when you walk into a store?

I look at how well it’s laid out. Is it clear to the consumer what they’re trying to sell and what statement they’re trying to make? Is it just a bunch of stuff they’re selling at a discount, or are they selling the store as a brand? Then, I see cleanliness and the ratio of shoppers to employees in the store. The energy a store gives off comes from these components.

Has technology taken over retailing — and if so, is it a good thing or bad thing?

It’s a good thing because technology makes the retailer smarter when it’s done right. But technology also takes some of the sensitivity out of retailing. Everything is done by the numbers. Technology has created the ability to make a more efficient product and get it to stores efficiently. It allows retailers to know when they’re out of stock — which is still the No. 1 issue with consumers.

How is social media really impacting retailing — and what will be its most lasting impact?

It used to be that in retail we’d go into the store and be influenced by what was in that store. Then it became designers and brands that influenced us the most. But today, we live in a world of social media influencing us in a much bigger way. We live in an environment where social media is influencing and dictating us in more ways than ever before. We are influenced by others posting their likes and they are influenced by ours.

What is the retail world’s greatest weakness — and how can it be fixed?

The ability to be able to connect with the consumer and create a two-way conversation. Retailers have yet to find a great way to know and anticipate what consumers really want. Most simply put product on the floor and if it sells well, they order more of it. What’s happening now is that consumers want the product right now. They want it when they want it. But most retailers still operate on the old model of ordering spring merchandise in January. That’s not how consumers buy.

What is the retail world’s greatest strength — and how can they take better advantage of it?

Consumers don’t save money. Any time they get money, it burns a hole in their pocket. Retailers have a huge opportunity to continue to sell to consumers who want to continuously upgrade. We are a nation of spenders and retail has a real opportunity to profit from that.

Are we over-stored?

Yes, we continue to be over-stored. By 2025, another 7 percent of U.S. stores will close, but we will still be over-stored. Malls built 20 years ago aren’t in the right place anymore. We have to find a way to cleanse inappropriate locations and repetitive products. Besides too many stores, there are too many brands sold inside the stores. You have 27 choices of jeans in stores. You don’t need that many. There is currently 22 square feet of retail per person in the United States.

What will save bricks-and-mortar retailers?

Retail stores that evolve toward consumer trends will prosper. Stores can stock less product and make shopping much more entertaining. For example, DSW is putting nail salons in the store and Nordstrom is putting the tailors back into some stores. These are services that bring back consumers. Retailers must be more food-centric and community-centric.

What’s the next big tech change in retail?

I’d say more kiosk keypads in retail outlets. You’ll see these in almost every store sooner than later.

What’s the dumbest thing a retailer can do?

Ignore you as a customer and fail to recognize that every transaction with you can impact 10 others. People love to share their bad experiences more than their good ones.

What’s the smartest thing a retailer can do?

Provide great customer service that features continual dialogue and engagement after the transaction. If you are going hiking, for example, I want to be able to help you find everything you need for that hike. I also want to hear how the hike went — and what I can do to make the next one better. Very few retailers communicate before, during and after the shopping experience. Most are waiting for you to come to them.

How can smaller retailers compete with the big guys?

Out-service them. Out-loyalist them. And out-communicate them. Consumers love to support their local store. Just help me understand that you’re going to give me good service — and if I don’t like the product or it doesn’t work, you’ll be here tomorrow to take it back. Service is a huge part of the pie.

What’s the best way for a retailer to nudge a consumer to spend money?

Convince them that this is the right time, the right price and the right product for you. Give them a reason why they shouldn’t wait.

Do most retailers do this?

No. Most retailers think they can just put something on a hanger and expect the consumer to get excited about it. But how can someone get excited about bad packaging, bad signage and poor display? Retailers have to learn to romance the product they are trying to sell.

What will 2020 be like for retailing?

Politics has entered the world of retail in more ways than we’ve ever seen. Look for 2020 to be a very challenging year for retail. The 2020 election will be a big distraction. Consumers will not spend at the same level.

Can you shock me with your predictions for what retail will look like in 20 years?

I think 90 percent of what we buy will be on the replenishment cycle. By that I mean a system of supply anticipation — so that you’ll never run out of product. We’ll not only have driverless cars, but shopper-less shopping.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist.