It’s no secret that the retail industry has changed significantly in recent years. E-commerce continues to evolve and play a large role, influencing how consumers interact with brands and how retailers manage their omnichannel presence.
This year, we’ve seen retailers make great strides in understanding their customer base and learning how they can better cater to shoppers. As the channel grows it’s up to retailers to focus on how they can stay relevant—it’s become increasingly clear that consumers run the show, and retailers must keep up. As attention turns toward 2017, let’s take a look back at the industry’s recent evolutions and what retailers should focus on in the months—and years—ahead.
The customer journey is an important topic for retailers. Over the past few years, customers’ purchase paths have changed significantly. No longer do shoppers just walk into a store and purchase an item. Instead, the journey has changed into a multi-touchpoint, omnichannel journey. Now a consumer may browse a brand on their smartphone on the way to work, review the selected items on their computer during the day and make the purchase on their tablet at night. A way to engage with a customer and increase retention rates is to have an easily navigable website, which looks and acts the same across all platforms. Shoppers do not want their purchase path to be deterred by a confusing website that does not translate well on their mobile phone or tablet. If they want to look up an item, it better be quick and easy. Underscoring the importance of responsive design, comScore reports that one in five purchases during last year’s holiday season were made via a smartphone or tablet. With these numbers continuing to show how customers are shopping, it’s critical that retailers have strong mobile capabilities to ease the customer journey.
Reaching the Millennial
Now that the millennial generation is coming of age, this group as a whole has more disposable income and is becoming a key demographic for many retailers. To reach this notoriously difficult group, brands must center their engagement approach on speed and convenience. Engagement is a key indicator of how successful a retailer will be with this group. A retailer with a strong social media presence can almost guarantee that today’s younger generation will shop with the brand. With the younger (technologically savvy) generation maturing and continuing to have a growing importance in the market, retailers must learn how to communicate with them in a way that fits their lifestyle, sooner rather than later.
This past year, user-generated content (UGC) made its rise in the industry, with a huge influx of social media content appearing on retailers’ sites. UGC has become a very valuable asset for brands, particularly those in the apparel space. Through UGC, brands have the functionality to showcase how other shoppers are styling an item, which inspires browsers and provides ideas on how to wear and pair different pieces. It also enables the brand to interact with its most valued customers through social media— for free. For example, a large brand can take a follower’s Instagram post, which was tagged with their product, and display it on their website in a “social post collage.” This trend has quickly proven its worth over the past year especially among younger generations. The content created and shared across social channels presents a great opportunity for retailers to tap into conversations and effectively cater to users’ demands and interests. Sourcing and incorporating content from these channels helps create a more authentic and engaging shopping experience that enhances customer loyalty and retailers’ credibility.
Another way brands are reaching the millennial generation is through shoppable content. Consumers are looking to retailers to make their experience feel unique, and today’s retailers can personalize their shoppers’ journey by using Pinterest “buy buttons,” direct links on Instagram and Twitter. Again, shoppable social content enables retailers to reach and engage with the target millennial demographic across social networks, where they are already spending time. Providing these users with the ability to buy directly from Instagram, for example, allows retailers to cater to their lifestyle preferences by providing a convenient and easy way to make purchases.
What Does the Future Hold for Retail?
Looking ahead to 2017, an important technological change to be aware of is the evolution of website capabilities and how content is controlled across devices. Content needs to be consolidated and managed in one central system and delivered consistently to all channels. As businesses have matured towards developing a single view of the customer and product, the time is now for a non-siloed approach to content. Customers now expect experiences to transition from one device to the next with consistent and coherent content.
Last year Google announced changes to algorithms that would promote sites that are mobile friendly and responsive. The challenge for current content management systems is that the technology is modelled on web architectures that are a decade old – their internal data structures can’t cope with the demands of moving from the page paradigm to more complex and granular content. Modern content management systems need to provide content in a technology agnostic format that can be consumed by ever evolving web technologies – Angular, Node, React, etc. A 2017 priority for retailers will be to ensure that these website challenges are addressed and taken care of. Successful online retailers will feature rich content filled with dynamic images, integrated zoom, 360-degree views, and even video. High quality content is exceptionally important on ecommerce sites: it’s the only way that online shoppers can become truly familiar with products and be confident enough to buy them.
Focus on the Customer
Personalization has been the “Promised Land” for ecommerce since its earliest days. Every year we hear the same mantra, however what’s prevented this from becoming a reality is that every part of a customer experience has to become atomic and attributed before it can be dynamically selected to form part of a specific customer experience. From the technology and content side of things, this has proven difficult on a number of levels. First, content management systems think in site pages. Pages and modules should be enough but unfortunately the content inside these pages and modules is locked away and contained when the content is rendered.
Luckily, a new breed of CMS systems exists. They enable the breakdown of content into their atomic constituents and the freedom to add metadata enabling the assembly of experiences that deliver a truly personalized experience on a granular level. With this advance in technology, personalization will be an everyday occurrence rather than a technological nightmare for retailers.
With the evolving customer journey, the growth of ecommerce and increasing customer demands continuing to dominate the industry, technology is the key to success. As brands grow and dive into ecommerce, technology will improve, not just for the consumer but for the needs of the retailer as well. The retail tech innovations we’ve seen in 2016 will continue in the years to come and will have immense influence on the future direction of the industry. Thanks to the omnichannel revolution, ecommerce and technology, the retail industry knows no bounds.
James Brooke is CEO and Founder of Amplience