Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Andy Morris, head of retail at management consultancy Egremont Group.
Walking around the NRF Big Show this year, it was difficult not to be impressed by the huge array of technology on display — everything from AI to VR headsets to companies promising to 3D print “concept fashion items.” Scratch the surface, though, and what really stood out in this year’s show were the retailers who have already embedded this technology into their everyday offerings.
Nordstrom suppliers, for example, demonstrated how Nordstrom advertises shoes that don’t actually exist yet, placing control firmly in the hands of the customer and giving them a choice among thousands of shoes which they can make to order — a great example of how technology can be used as an enabler for immediate and personalized retail. Other new and exciting ways are being developed to understand and build a relationship with an empowered customer giving them exactly what they need when and how they want it.
This new breed of joined-up retailing demonstrated perfectly the return of the store as “theatre” — i.e., retail with a sense of place, passion and personality. Among the businesses showcasing their wares at the NRF, the most compelling were the ones where the suits and ties had been ditched in favor of a brand ambassador salesforce of casually dressed, aspirational evangelists delivering a believable narrative to customers.
Established retailers and new entrants alike are investing in physical stores as a way to surprise and delight their customers. The stakes are high, and a physical presence is going to have be so much more than just a building with staff in order to compete against disruptive influences. When consumers have so much choice (and such high expectations) about the types of interaction they have with retailers, the retailer will have to work even harder to engage them. By embracing social, viral and organic marketing, retailers at the NRF conference showed how they are striving to create a personal experience that will lead to a sense of belonging for their customers.
For example, Sundance stood out for a store experience that tells a story to its customers, wowing them with a sense of discovery, authenticity of product and delight in what they find. Their passionate store ambassadors have deep product knowledge that creates loyalty beyond the commercial transaction. Customers explain “When I go into a Sundance store, I am engaged in the story behind what I am buying, which creates a personal connection not only to the product, but to the store itself. It is an emotional experience turning a customer like me into a loyal follower.” Similarly, Fleurty Girl in New Orleans creates a wonderful sense of fun and place, helping customers to feel connected to the city — and the provenance of their purchases.
It is this physical manifestation of brand aspirations that made the NRF Big Show interesting. With technology moving faster than many organizations can process, one of the biggest retail challenges for established players is “How can I mobilize my legacy teams to adopt and bring new technology to life in a way that really puts on a great show to our customers?”
Successful retailers are embracing this challenge and understand that the all-important key to creating this engagement is to take a business-wide approach. It’s not enough to only focus on the IT: Everyone from the shopfloor to the warehouse team needs to be motivated to create that unique experience. Just as Sundance managed to demonstrate so well in their store experience, the whole team must pull together to deliver the same narrative. It is about harnessing the very best technology across the business to create the sense of ‘place, passion and personality.’
A truly successful model is one where people and technology work together both in front of the customer to create the ‘theatre’ in store and behind the scenes, across all the retailing channels. All of the technology in the world will fail if it isn’t used in a relevant and engaging way by people with passion for what they’re doing and a sense of purpose.