Ron Johnson, the new JCPenney CEO, recently made an acute observation. “Retail isn’t broken” he asserted, “stores are”. And it is the nation’s behemoths – wholesale retailers like Macy’s, JCP and Kohl’s – who have the most at stake and, due to their size, are faced with some of the biggest challenges.
And the data is there to back up Johnson’s claims. According to a recent study of North Americans, shopper satisfaction at retail stores is declining up to 15% a year. And just as importantly, the role the store is playing is changing as shoppers walk up with a different set of expectations, armed with smart phones and the knowledge that greater selection and pricing is almost certainly just one click away.
Broadly speaking, some of the key challenges traditional bricks and mortar wholesale retailers face can be broken down into four main categories:
Product assortment in-store can be overwhelming and confusing. It’s hard for consumers to understand each brand’s value proposition and then, within a single brand, it can be really hard to determine an individual product’s unique selling proposition. Without a dedicated sales associate on hand, someone with expert product knowledge, it can be hard for us to know what we are buying and why.
It can be a hassle to actually compare products — especially clothing. Who has the energy and time to really dig through the racks? Gift-giving isn’t ideally facilitated at the store level either. If we buy a loved one a gift we typically then have to take it home, wrap it, then make a separate trip to pack and ship. And let’s be honest, with today’s working hours and the pressures of family life, just getting to the store in the first place can be a real challenge.
When you are representing so many brands in-store, shoppers aren’t fully immersed in any particular brand. The co-branded environment, by its very nature, dilutes each individual offering to the point where the shop floor can look like one giant cluttered mess.
Perhaps the single biggest challenge retailers face is the limited availability of products in-store. We know that we can log on, checkout the products we are interested in, and find almost anything we want. In-store it’s a very different story. To the point where we are now actually surprised if a retailer has the item we want, in the color we want, in our size.
The good news is that retailers are exploring innovative ways to tackle these problems, using a wealth of new technologies to help bridge the virtual and real worlds. And it really helps that we have a fundamental human need to connect with others in real world environments. We love to gather and chat and immerse ourselves in new experiences. We want our lives to be enriched and nourished. And that can be hard to achieve sat hunched over a laptop. So what’s the answer? There is no one single solution. Instead we are going to see retailers trying a wealth of techniques from magic mirrors to digital kiosks, and from augmented reality to digital shelf-talkers, as they seek to provide rewarding, enriching experiences that serve both a retail and a human need.
From our standpoint, this is an exciting time. As a marketing agency with a strong foundation in traditional brand strategy, and a wealth of experience with digital wholesale marketing, we’re in an ideal position to help retailers blend on-floor strategy with digital innovation. In fact our first in-store iPad App just starred in a TV spot for JCP. This is the first of many in-store digital initiatives we will work on. After all, as Johnson pointed out, it’s time we fixed the in-store experience.