Customer centricity wasn’t just a point of discussion on panels at NRF’s Big Show; it was a hot topic on the expo floor, too. Exhibitors asked about the future of direct-to-consumer retail all seemed to agree that the customer is calling the shots in 2019, and they’re asking for more in the way of omnichannel and seamless checkout experiences.
“The learning curve for direct-to-consumer is really around becoming consumer-centric,” said Terri Pucin, senior consultant at FitForCommerce. Pucin pointed out that many manufacturers are used to cyclical product launches, and that developing a production timeline that meshes with consumer demands isn’t always intuitive.
An even bigger stumbling block for companies, Pucin said, is pushing customers through to a sale.
While the direct-to-consumer space is rife with savvy social media marketing, many retailers entering the market lack the knowledge needed to go beyond generating buzz. “Selling directly to customers requires merchandising and marketing expertise designed to convince a customer to purchase now,” Pucin said. “It’s important that retailers map their customer journey, from discovery to purchase to post-sales, to understand all the customer touchpoints.”
Phil Granof, CMO of NewStore, reiterated Pucin’s statement, adding that retailers may be overthinking the delineation between online and in-store experience. “Consumers don’t think about retail in terms of channels,” Granof said. “What they want online is exactly what they want in-store and on mobile: a shopping experience that is simple, novel, authentic and personalized.”
Granof said creating a true omnichannel experience is vital for brands to succeed, and retailers should not assume a path ends online. Shoppers are coming to expect an omnichannel experience, he said, and want multiple fulfillment options like pick up in-store or at a locker.
Further, he said alternative purchase options can be the difference between completing a purchase or abandoning a cart. And expanding payment options is another aspect of retail that direct-to-consumer brands are uniquely positioned to take advantage of.
“Technology innovation has resulted in so many alternatives beyond cash and credit,” said Granof, going on to name Apple Pay, PayPal, Amazon Pay, AliPay, AfterPay and Venmo as examples. Those payment alternatives, along with buy-now, pay-later options like Affirm and AfterPay, are crucial for upstart brands to convert fans into customers. “Retailers are focused on payment options today because they have to be. They have to accommodate, or at least manage, consumer expectations around these new payment options, or else they risk losing out to those who do.”
Shoppers also expect their products to arrive accurately and quickly, every time.
Sam Fayez, VP of data science and business intelligence at 7thonline, said that how to position inventory for a smooth omnichannel experience is one of the most frequent questions his team gets from retail partners.
“Everyone who is in the physical space and trying to satisfy their online users is trying to meet the standard of two-day shipping,” said Fayez. “A lot of them are looking at how to position their inventory in the stores to serve the walk-in customers, but also to serve the online customer and make it possible for them to receive their products in a reasonable amount of time.” That strategy, Fayez said, often doesn’t come naturally to companies that aren’t digital natives.
Social media is increasing the need for fast, seamless transactions, Fayez said. Many customers, he noted, will be introduced to the brand through social media, and might not seek out the product beyond the social media sphere. “In the past, we really looked at three dimensions in retail: the product itself, timing, and location,” he said. “But today, you also have to consider the media context.”
Just as mass personalization continues to reshape the way retailers approach their product, a custom purchasing experience might become the hallmark of winning retail strategy in the coming year. Personalizing the shopping experience for each customer used to be considered innovative, but now it’s a determining factor in brands’ success, said Pucin. “Customers have extremely high expectations,” Pucin said. “They expect that retailers are learning about them and will therefore deliver relevant shopping journeys.”