The Retail Shift

By Derek Bonney,

Technology has shifted everything, especially the retail experience. Not only has it changed how we locate, evaluate and purchase products or services, it has created a treasure trove of data for both retailers and marketers. So let’s examine something I call the “Retail Shift.”

With the advent of e-commerce in the ’90s, consumers with Internet access were invited to shop for their favorite products and services 24/7/365. I like to think of this time as the era of “Access.” If there was an Internet connection, consumers could purchase anything at anytime, no matter their physical location.

Of course, this led to the infamous retail doomsday scenario – the concept that shopping malls would become ghost towns and everything would go digital overnight. I believe it was this same wishful thinking that ushered us into the dot-com bust.

The reality is that a good majority of consumers like the social and emotional gratification they experience during the physical act of shopping. However, as access to the wired world proliferates, the web is morphing into communities and smartphones are creating a new level of engagement. This leads us to the start of a new era, one I like to call “Control and Influence.”

Mobile has resulted in one of the most disruptive channels in the retail sector. Today, 64% of smartphone users shop online via their device; and a third of smartphone users have shared their location with a retailer via some sort of check-in app. Not only can we now let retailers know when we are present in their stores (or nearby), we can also locate and complete the entire transaction in the palm of our hand (or sometimes theirs). And beyond location recognition, mobile has also altered the in-store experience. By simply scanning a barcode, we can now gather additional knowledge on a particular product or we can search other merchants for a better deal.

Let’s not forget about tablets. A recent report from Monetate showed that for the first time, tablets drove more traffic to commerce sites than smartphones. And as tablets look to outpace the distribution of smartphones, we can only expect this mode of shopping to become the new norm.

And here's a startling concept – for a typical brand, only 1% of their Facebook audience regularly engages their content. This means there's a high probability that 99% of the brand’s Facebook audience isn't regularly engaged. Statistics also show that consumers now place more trust in peer reviews than unbiased entities that are dedicated to testing and ensuring product quality.

But let’s look beyond Facebook as social media is a much larger channel. When it comes to Twitter, Wal-Mart has championed one of the most successful uses of the channel with their “Wal-Mart Moms” initiative. A group of 20 moms are given special access to Wal-Mart products and asked to openly share their opinions via blogging. A genius move since blogs are the No. 1 channel when it comes to influencing female online shoppers.

Best Buy on the other hand has led the way in showcasing how Twitter can be a great customer service channel with Twelpforce. Twelpforce provides consumers with immediate access to approximately 3,000 Blue Shirts who are ready to help solve any technical challenge, all via tweets.

Now we are seeing a new social experience emerge completely driven by images, and channels such as Pinterest are quickly becoming an e-commerce force. In a recent Bizrate Insights study, 32% of online shoppers in North America made a purchase based on seeing the image of the product on a social network like Pinterest. And moving beyond purchases, a recent study by BlogHer noted that 81% of the female Pinterest audience trusted the site for information and advice. That's stronger influence than both Twitter and Facebook.

So, while the landscape is forever shifting, let’s talk about a few ways you can harness the power of these channels today to set yourself up for a successful future.

1. Be accessible. From a mobile perspective, make sure your digital presence can be easily accessed and that it fits the platform. In short, what you do on a tablet is not always the same as your smartphone. And from the viewpoint of social media, customize your approach for each channel and let your audience guide you in how they want to be engaged. Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to be involved in every channel. Only take on those you can manage regularly, since the consumer will expect constant attention.

2. Consistent experiences. Don’t view your e-commerce and retail initiatives as separate entities. Understand that the perception of your brand isn’t focused on a single channel, but instead is shaped by the collective experience across all channels. Think about how you can use the in-store experience to drive digital engagement. Look at things like mobile check-in offers. Integrate QR codes to share custom content. Make it easy for customers to share your products with their social networks. And subsequently, look to identify ways that you can use digital media to drive foot traffic. Above all, ensure that each experience is representative of the brand you seek to portray.

3. Learn. One of the biggest advantages retailers (or any marketer for that matter) have when using digital media is the ability to collect deep insights on customer engagement. It sounds basic, but you must have a solid plan for what data points you are going to monitor and how you will use them to shape your engagement strategy. Then, as resources allow, look at tying all of your channels together to create a holistic understanding of the needs of your customers. This will help you build a seamless experience across all channels, benefiting your customers and your business.

Since technology shows no signs of slowing down, there’s no better time than now to embrace the shift. And remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and baby steps can lead to monster gains.

Derek Bonney is managing director at Manifest Digital, a user-centered design firm that uncovers powerful insights to create award‐winning websites, mobile applications, online ad campaigns, events and brand experiences. HE can be reached at


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