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Retail is transforming, but the basics still count

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Remember when retail was all about transactions?

Yeah, we don’t either. That era is so far gone you can’t even see it from where retail is now. That’s clear to anyone who spends his or her days trying to figure out how to please customers in an era of technological advances and digital transformation. The big picture of the evolution of retail becomes especially clear during presentations like the one last month at the West Coast Ecommerce Summit.

Half a dozen retail and ecommerce experts spoke as part of a panel, “The Next Big Thing in Ecommerce: Challenges and Opportunities.” And let’s just say the exploration of the keys to reaching consumers spent more time on the challenges than the opportunities.

“It’s almost like now people are at a place where the product is almost secondary to, really, that initial connection, that human connection,” says Arthur Chipman, executive producer of LA Fashion Week. Chipman, whose organization hosts the event, says that brand experience has become the key differentiator.

But you’ll notice, Chipman did say the product is almost secondary. Few would argue that you don’t need a good product to succeed. The point is, that isn’t enough anymore. As the panelists talked, themes emerged. Retailers and brands need to be storytellers. They need to connect with consumers in ways that go beyond providing information on size, color, availability and price. Consumers crave relationships. They prefer retailers that are purpose-driven, that give them a reason to buy besides consumption and self-satisfaction.

The for-purpose approach to retail is a thing

“We work with a lot of retailers, particularly digital natives,” says Stefan Nandzik, Signifyd vice president of corporate communications. “What we noticed was that the focus on product or storytelling and leading with a for-purpose approach seems to be one of these engagement metrics that is not tech. It’s not AI. It is not something that you would normally have in the buzzword world. But it’s very traditional to be relevant to your audience.”

It’s the way you build a community around your brand or your product, he said.

Daniel Head, director of digital marketing and CRM at TOMS, would agree. The shoe retailer was founded with the idea that it would give a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold. Late last year, the company launched a program in which it donated $5 million to organizations working to end gun violence. It also offered to send a postcard to elected representatives on behalf of those who sign up on the TOMS website. The postcards ask officials to pass universal background check legislation.

The initiative, which started in the run up to Black Friday, led to “the biggest shopping weekend we’ve ever seen,” Head says.

So yes, the demands on retailers and the strategies they are employing are shifting. But none of the emerging thinking gives retailers a pass on the fundamentals. Digital sites need to perform quickly and be intuitive. Websites and apps need to anticipate consumers’ needs and demonstrate that they know the consumer. The simple things, that “won’t win you big, but can really hurt you,” Nandzik says, still have to be part of the plan.

And they have to be done well. Too often marketing is about disrupting a consumer’s shopping experience, he says, like when ecommerce sites offer irrelevant products as complimentary items or engage in aggressive upselling.

“You are really time-pressed to buy something specific and now you are getting all this clutter,” he says.

Or retailers add obstacles to the buying process to protect themselves from harm in the form of fraud or return abuse, for instance, which isn’t necessary when merchants turn to technology to help them better understand the customers who are coming to their sites.

AI isn’t always the answer

While technology, and artificial intelligence in particular, provides remarkable ways to understand, trust and serve customers, it is not always the right solution, says panelist Eyal Brikman, ecommerce director of Kobelli.

“We’re really focused on the old-fashioned way, and actually talk to the customer,” Eyal says. “If it’s someone who didn’t buy from us, we’re going to call them. We’re going to email them and ask them why they didn’t buy from us.”

He pointed out that jewelry is what you would call a considered purchase. Shoppers are sometimes spending thousands of dollars.

“No one is buying $2,000, $3,000 jewelry in one click,” he says.

They might shop for months, comparing and considering. During that time, Eyal says, Kobelli works on building a relationship, keeping the customer engaged.

Which underlines an important point: The key to success is finding the right mix of artificial intelligence and human expertise and intuition. The answer might be different by product, by retail vertical, by target audience. Figuring it out is a process of iterating and listening to consumers.

The one constant, however, is that retail is about so much more than a simple transaction.

Photo by iStock

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].