Retail evolution: When the (off- and on-) lines blur

We shouldn’t be surprised that John Lewis, and retailers as a whole, are expecting to need more workers this Christmas. This will be the first after the vaccine rollout, which means that people unsurprisingly want a bigger and better Christmas than last year. Our own research suggests that consumers are already planning to spend on average 64% more on their Christmas presents this year than 2019.

Why? Consumers are feeling a stronger-than-usual emotional connection with the upcoming holiday.

Between Brexit and the pandemic, everything about the way people shop has changed.  So much of the current conversation is focused on how a lack of transport drivers has led to shipping delays, but what we really should be talking about is how the in-person shopping experience has changed.

Now people are more likely to go to shops for the experience of going out and looking at items, but not necessarily buying. People are increasingly using the digital experience to boost the in-person experience, and vice-versa, meaning both in-store and supply chain staff are in more demand than ever.

So,how can brands  build synergy between the in-person and digital experience?

For starters, retailers need to provide consumers with a compelling reason to visit a store. If a consumer needs something fast, for instance, they should be able to see in the online search if an item is available nearby (i.e. to their IP address or most recently purchased store) for pickup, or how long home delivery would take (i.e. 1-2 days). When retailers clearly label this information, consumers can make informed decisions and decide whether an excursion is necessary. This will be especially relevant as the Christmas shopping season kicks into gear, as we’re expecting consumers to be shopping earlier and earlier to ensure that their Christmas decor and presents arrive  on time.

Other retailers might take the holiday season as a chance to experiment with their in-person shopping experiences. In the US, Saks Fifth Avenue and WeWork are teaming up to offer co-working spaces for people while they shop.  IKEA is doing away with its maze format and inviting shoppers to test out their furniture in “hang out” rooms. Why these approaches? Because retailers realize that consumers want a bigger bang for their buck when they shop in-store.

While some shoppers have been quick to return to physical shopping, others have been more hesitant to return to in-person experiences, especially because of the delta variant and ongoing supply constraints. In the early days of the pandemic, retailers innovated and created new shopping options such as curbside pickup and BOPIS (buy online pickup in-store). As it turns out, people responded well to the BOPIS option, especially consumers who were worried about shipping delays.

Some retailers are taking the opposite approach and focusing on how to make the online experience feel more like an in-person experience. For instance, US retail  giant Best Buy, is setting up virtual stores in their distribution centers so customers can connect with a “live store assistant” to demo products from a chat feature online, or by scanning a barcode in store. As Christmas approaches, other retailers will start finding new ways to innovate on this front as well.

For DTC and digital native brands, the conversation might look a little different. Red Power Bikes, a brand and manufacturer of electric bikes, only has 2 showrooms. So how does the brand convince people to purchase an £800 bike? The brand has led the way in crowdsourcing a sales room. Current customers can set up an account to show potential customers their bikes, and if the potential customers makes a purchase, the current customers gets a $50 gift card. Outer, a furniture company, is taking a similar approach and crowdsourcing their showrooms virtually. Current customers can show their furniture via text, chat,  or video. In exchange, they receive benefits such as special discounts and early access to new drops and products.

As Christmas draws closer, we can expect that other DTC and digital native brands will continue to experiment.  The bottom line? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting consumers’ needs this Christmas or in the future beyond that. Retailers will need to continue experimenting with a mix of digital and physical experiences in order to keep delighting their customers. 

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