How consumers shop is changing fast.
According to “Total Retail: The Race for Relevance,” an annual survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, mobile and social media are exerting more influence on shopping behavior, and consumers are looking to retailers to offer new conveniences wherever—and however—they choose to shop.
“[Retailers] need to think more about the customer journey and the overall customer experience,” Scott Bauer, U.S. Retail & Consumer Partner at PwC, told Retail Dive. “Given the types of consumers that engage with your brand, how do they compare your brand to others, how do they review products, and how do they interact with you post-transaction?”
Because no one channel holds the key to today’s marketplace, retailers must adapt by taking a holistic view of the customer’s path to purchase, PwC says, that includes mobile, social, and in-store experiences. The good news is that while that path is more varied than ever before, a brand promise and building trust are still vital to success—and the customer experience is a crucial part of delivering.
Starting on the mobile phone
Many customer's journey starts with their must-have device: the smartphone. Mobile devices delivered 37% of e-commerce sales on Thanksgiving day weekend in 2015, PwC’s report says, up from 25% the year prior. And Amazon recently reported that 70% of its customers shopped on a mobile device during the holidays, up 10% from 2014.
Adoption of mobile shopping in the United States lags other parts of the world where a smartphone is more often a consumer’s sole or fastest connection to the Internet, but tech-savvy millennials are changing that. Younger consumers make more purchases on mobile than other demographics, with 40% buying at least monthly.
Their behaviors aren’t limited solely to purchase. When shopping brick-and-mortar locations, four out of five (80%) millennials used a mobile device to research product information, look for deals, and make payments, while just 55% of consumers over 35 reported doing the same. Millennials are also more loyal to the brands they like, according to the survey, interacting with companies on mobile 11% more than other shoppers.
But not every interaction needs to lead a sale; many interactions are designed to build affinity and recognition among members of notoriously disloyal consumer segment. Nike’s fitness apps, for example, have long underlined its role as the world’s most recognizable athletics brand by helping consumers reach their fitness goals instead of selling shoes and apparel.
To build brands via mobile, companies must prove they’re worthy of small-screen space by producing valuable content—not just asking for the sale. “When we’re talking about branding, because mobile is more on consumers’ terms, it makes us ask, ‘Is this a piece of content people will actually like? And is it useful?’” Chet Gulland, head of strategy at Droga5 an advertising agency based in New York, told Ad Age.
A good brand connects the dots across platforms when consumers are faced with multiple options—for example, choosing among the results of a mobile search.
“Consumers are overwhelmed with choice, and brands help shortcut the process of choosing,” Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at Millward Brown, told Retail Dive via e-mail.
“Instinctive reactions based on prior brand experience and exposure can help shape initial response,” Hollis said. “Familiar and liked retail brands are more likely to be chosen for further exploration. Recognition is the gateway to response.”
Social leads to mobile
On social media, most digital interactions have already gone beyond the point of mere recognition. And now, social media is finally helping unlock more mobile purchases in the U.S., thanks to “shoppable” ads from Facebook, Pinterest, and other platforms that enable buying without leaving a site or app, Bauer says.
“There has been a significant uptick in people’s willingness to not just be influenced by social media, but to conduct a transaction on it,” Bauer said.
While only 10% of all U.S. shoppers told PwC that they shopped directly from social media in 2015, the figure is more than double 2014’s 4%. More than two-thirds of respondents reported that social media influences their online shopping, PwC says, with 40% citing online reviews and feedback as an important factor in their purchase decisions.
With more than 70% of all smartphone traffic originating on apps (and many of the most popular apps belonging to social platforms), social media is primed to become a great place to purchase. But that doesn’t mean a retailer should drop everything to get social or go native, Bauer says.
“Think about how consumers use mobile, social and all of the other platforms, as opposed to saying, ‘We need to have a great social experience,’” he advised. “You need to have a good social experience, but it has to be a good one for a specific individual and how that person chooses to engage.”
Data can help inform these decisions by helping companies figure out who shops their stores, sites and apps, what platforms they use to do so, and assist them in making that journey, start to finish.
“Shoppers now leave digital footprints that are easier than ever to track,” PwC’s survey said. “Mobile platforms that leverage one-to-one marketing can calculate precise ROI data for segments of one.”
Seeking convenience online, service in stores
Although mobile is growing, PwC's survey says that stores still have a role to play in an increasingly diverse commerce ecosystem. Brick-and-mortar locations are now seen as places to access a personal touch and experience, while online outlets are increasingly known for convenience.
The survey found that many (58%) online shoppers in the U.S. named convenience as the chief factor behind online shopping in 2015, while 32% named price. That’s a shift from 2014, when 52% of shoppers named price first, and 47% named convenience.
Asked what would improve the in-store experience, respondents listed sales associates with deep product knowledge (40%), self-service checkout (33%) and an ability to check stock elsewhere quickly (32%). And data can be essential to improving in-store service by automating inventory functions.
When inventory is accurate in a physical location, Bauer says, store personnel can spend more time on personalized customer service instead of just ringing up a sale. For instance, luxury department store Saks now offers a service that helps customer service representatives build relationships with individual customers by “curating” and suggesting specific items across channels.
“With item-level inventory, there is no guesswork—you know what will be sitting on the counter and can spend more time advising the client,” Bauer said. “As retailers take up technologies such as RFID, it will enable them to be the advisor. That’s what we’re moving toward.”
While tech might be the answer to improved customer service, “lifestyle” shopping experiences are also expanding as a way to attract customers to stores, the survey indicates. People like to be entertained as they shop, whether it’s free samples at the grocery store or a trunk show at the luxury boutique.
Nordstrom, for example, offers what amounts to a sports bar in its men’s department, while Restoration Hardware offers a full-service restaurant. Ikea’s cafeteria is one of the original food-based experiences. All keep shoppers in the store longer, and help physical locations compete with screens for shoppers’ attention.
There are always trade-offs, however, so if a brick-and-mortar store can’t or won’t offer anything that “wows” the customer, that customer can opt to shop online and take delivery when it’s most convenient for them to do so.
That means retailers must maintain a consistent approach across platforms, using the same visual cues and messaging wherever the brand appears.
“What if people are deliberating between retailers and there is a price differential?” Hollis asked. “It comes down to positive associations and trust. So making sure people know your brand and associate it with important decision criteria is important.”
And retailers should be prepared to pitch their brands to markets as small as a single consumer, according to PwC’s Bauer. “It’s about personas—the types of individuals and what you can learn about them to help them engage in the channel they choose,” he said. “Retailers are not going to be able to drop the ball on the user experience.”