Store closures. Sagging sales. Even though US consumers were expected to spend 3% more in 2017 in retail channels than they did the year prior, too many brands are lagging behind by failing to harness digital as an opportunity. The web is proving a threat to them by making their value proposition seem irrelevant, outdated, and inconvenient.
The shopping experience has to evolve – and so, too, does the messaging around it.
"In the early 2000s we were persuading people to get online," notes Jodi Brooks, chair of Burson-Marsteller’s US tech practice. "Five or six years ago, we were then asking people to trust the safety of the Internet. Now, it is all about efficiencies, logistics, and the supply chain."
Tom Bianculli then took to the stage for his keynote and shared his unique perspective as chief technology officer at Zebra Technologies, a mobile and real-time tracking technology provider. He began with a quote from Robert Wolcott, executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management:
"One of most powerful forcers reshaping markets will be the production and provision of products and services ever closer to the point of demand."
In expanding on those assertions, Bianculli says retailers must deliver on the promise of the on-demand economy, just as their counterparts in other sectors. The numbers support his sentiment: By 2020, 15% of all shipments in transportation and logistics will be "instant delivery" (according to McKinsey), while in the healthcare space 30% of hospitals will be running real-time healthcare systems (according to Gartner).
In addition, he continued, by 2025 a third of all online retail sales will be fulfilled within a couple of hours.
This is an opportunity to embrace, as fulfillment immediacy opens up such an incredible value proposition for retailers. "It becomes interesting when you think about the convenience of online with the fulfilment immediacy of what you normally get in store," suggests Bianculli.
His stark words for retailers who fail to embrace this: "You will be left behind."
And Bianculli has numbers to underscore the point. McKinsey reports that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has been dramatically shrinking, from 90 years in 1935 to an estimated 13 years by 2020. "Over the next 10 years," he warns, "50% of the S&P 500 will be swapped out because companies aren’t reacting fast enough."
In building out their supply chain for multiple and more immediate fulfillment options, Bianculli says retailers must understand the value proposition isn’t the tech itself, but what it makes possible: humanizing the shopping experience for consumers by making it customizable and relevant. His term for this: "digital empathy."
And there are multiple ways to build it. Combining RFID (Radio frequency identification) and mobile location technology, retailers can, for instance, recognize now when a consumer is dwelling in front of a product at the store and respond to that hesitation.
"You can see that dwell time and proactively dispatch a store staffer to help that person," explains Bianculli. Now imagine the sales associate also checking them right out in the aisle with a mobile device, offering to have big items shipped to their home and enabling the customer to walk out with smaller items right away.
"The customer expectation now is to be as connected in store as they are online," he notes. "The idea of being able to deliver to a person as opposed to a location is something that’s emerging." And amid all this, numerous messaging opportunities will present themselves for savvy communicators.
What’s the story?
Speaking of savvy communicators, four such industry leaders assembled immediately after Bianculli’s presentation for a panel on how retail brands need to tell their stories.
Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO at Burson-Marsteller (pictured above), says as everything becomes automated in retail, remembering the human component is critical. He emphasizes how PR can play a big role to "engage, excite, and comfort different kinds of consumers as they’re going through this retail evolution."
Jessica Doyle, VP of communications at Etsy, reports that her brand has actually refined its mission statement to remember the online crafts platform is "all about human interaction." The new statement is "Keep commerce human."
FedEx understands consumers have more shipping options now and, as such, it’s not automatically the default choice for young people. "They will have more choices and control in their transportation decisions," explains Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx’s SVP of integrated marketing and communications. "We must make sure the brand gets connected the right way."
Meanwhile, Macy’s has been bringing digital elements such as VR into its stores, shares VP of corporate communications Blair Rosenberg. "We’ve seen a lot of customers come through, try the virtual reality, and then come in and shop."
Amazon. Millennials. Mobile. These are all hugely impacting not only the retail sector, but also all communicators in the space. You can read the aforementioned quartet of leaders’ counsel on this in the January/February issue of PRWeek, where we delve deep into their panel discussion. In addition, Bianculli will share six tips on how brands can craft powerful messages in the evolving retail sector.