JCPenney recently announced it will be closing 140 U.S. stores. The news follows American Apparel declaring bankruptcy, WetSeal going out of business, The Limited shutting down… This growing list of closures has led to a slew of “The Death of Retail” headlines and social media posts.
The predatory instinct of watching something die-off is not only instinctually captivating, it also gets pageviews. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this. The headline for this article employed this click-capturing technique, and, if you’re reading this sentence, you fell for it… again!
After a while, it can make you wonder, are we actually witnessing the death of retail? Is it a shift to big-box one-stops vs. boutique specialty stores? Is it just a phase? Are we all contributing to a rubbernecking traffic jam for nothing more than a fender-bender?
No one knows for sure, but one can say with certainty that the history of ecommerce, and its evolution to buzzword-bungled multi-channel, omnichannel, multi-device, border-free shopping experiences has been littered with perilous predictions.
Rather than getting bogged down in a pessimistic perspective of all things commerce, I say stop thinking like a marketer for a moment and start thinking like a consumer. Not just your customer, but consumers as a large mass of people ready to shop, looking for a deal and wanting everything right now – or at least with a next-day shipping option.
The death knell of the closures and bankruptcies has been masking the sound of the consumer’s voice. For the past few years, the consumer has been the catalyst pushing all things commerce, forward. Many of the struggling retailers mentioned earlier in this article may have been able to build captivating shopping experiences online and in-store, but these innovations may not have kept up with changing consumer preferences and behaviors.
As marketers, we often go straight for the data when we are panicked and need answers. This can result in too much of a focus on performance data and not enough on consumer behavior and the qualitative metrics that reveal how consumers are shaping commerce trends.
Finding a balance between marketing data and consumer insights will help you to identify trends where the data may point you in the right direction, but the consumer’s voice will really tell you where they want to go.
There are, however, two pieces of this commerce puzzle that can help you to tap into these twists and turns in consumer behavior: user-generated content (UGC) and email marketing. Now, I won’t outline all of the values of email and UGC here, but I do want to be clear about the need to find possibilities for including them both in the overall analysis of your business’s performance.
From initial awareness of your brand to long-term loyalty, both email and UGC connect to each step of the customer journey. Along with your quantitative analysis, look for moments when the consumer zigs when you expect them to zag.
You may find that shoppers are highly engaged and active until a product is added to the shopping cart, then they flatline. In this example, look at the last moments of engagement and your post-abandonment marketing efforts to see what’s missing the mark. Perhaps your strategy could benefit from a more personal tone or brand voice that speaks to the consumer differently than an incentive that is repeated in every message.
Additionally, look to your UGC – ratings, reviews, community Q&A, customer photos – to see if your customers are finding new ways to shop and share experiences.
For example, there may be gaps in your product page content that could be filled by featuring your UGC more prominently. If your product Q&A is filled with questions about size, color, cut and fabric, then adding photos and videos submitted by past customers could help these concerned shoppers buy with confidence. Perhaps your shoppers are building projects with your products that could motivate first-time buyers to truly understand the value of your products.
If every business was successful and our industry never changed, every consumer would be happy, sales would constantly break records and we could all retire early. Unfortunately, that’s just not how the world works. As we saw years ago with Borders and Circuit City, and we are seeing now with retailers such as JCPenney and American Apparel, there will be unexpected changes and, in the end, consumers will get their way. We just have to make sure we are listening when they whisper what they want.
Jim Davidson is Director of Research for TurnTo