One-on-one consumer relationships retain value

Inspired by the likes of Amazon, iTunes, and eBay, traditional retailers are jumping the brick-and-mortar ship in favor of the online experience.

Retail is in the midst of a revolution. Inspired by the likes of Amazon, iTunes, and eBay, traditional retailers are jumping the brick-and-mortar ship in favor of the online experience. Meanwhile, e-retailers are focusing more on how to better connect, motivate, and inspire consumers one on one.

This notion of one on one is catching on - and changing the dialogue in the C-suite. As consumer goods brands start to act on this, the bar will be raised in all realms of consumer and shopper relationships. As such, building a connection involves creating communities for like-minded individuals - communities that connect with the brand's values and simplify consumer choice; based upon their own unique set of preferences and habits.

For many years, marketers had a distinct way of examining and determining consumers' decision processes. Typically, consumers considered a wide range of brands and methodically narrowed their options until a final selection could be made. In response, brands addressed consumers' points of awareness and purchase through PR, marketing, advertising, and promotional spending.

Today's "pathway to purchase" is far more complex. Thanks to countless digital advancements, consumers now connect with many brands through many channels. They spend significantly more time in the research phase. They also spend more time shopping online and experience more direct relationships with digital retailers via recommendations, purchase histories, third-party reviews, and more.

Such changes to a consumer's decision process means that traditional strategies used by retailers will no longer work. Retail brands must be as quick as they are agile. A fluid, uncertain market is the new normal. Responsiveness now trumps efficiency. When a brand is responsive to its shoppers' behaviors and expectations, it adds value to its goods and services. Added value allows a brand to earn more in terms of revenue and customer loyalty.

Today, retail communications executives should be challenging their agencies to connect with their shoppers in ways that answer the "why" questions and not just the "what and how" of their brand's reason for being. Focusing on "why" will lead to a more intimate connection and, ideally, the shopper's willingness to invest their time and energy into the relationship. In turn, shoppers will see value via a more emotionally driven brand experience that lives beyond the latest deal.

Agencies should be provoking their clients to think beyond the current selling period and look at more durable ways to engage with shoppers that leverage opt-in communications and information-sharing that increases trust. The goal is to create brand/shopper relationships that are empathetic and "sticky" because the shopper is investing - and what they get back is worth the investment.

Brick-and-mortar retailers, in particular, have the advantage of the actual store experience to connect with shoppers in a richer, more immersive way than their purely digital competitors.

For example, Macy's is deploying various technologies in its stores - free Wi-Fi, digital receipts, tablets for store associates, and more. Such technologies not only enhance the in-store experience, but also mirror its online shopping experience. In short, Macy's appears determined to master an omnichannel perspective, where brand-driven retail prevails and channels become irrelevant. The brand will be accessible to shoppers no matter how or when they prefer to explore or shop.

Suning, the leading household appliance chain in China, spent 2011 focused on meeting consumers' needs through better service and e-commerce. To improve after-sales service in an effective and sustainable way, the brand established an employee-training center, the first of its kind in the industry. Indeed, Suning's brand promise to "Bring happiness to your home" signals an ongoing commitment to the customer through the life of its appliance.

Every channel matters, so it is imperative for retailers to tap into technology in a way that resonates with the overall brand proposition. It is technology, after all, that enables them to establish personal connections with consumers - a key driver of business growth in today's global marketplace. The future will belong to those retailers that leverage the best digital tools in order to establish meaningful and valuable relationships with consumers. l

Bill Chidley is SVP of Interbrand Design Forum, the retail division of global brand consulting firm, Interbrand.

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