The commerce revolution: shopping for a new experience

Consumers expect more from retailers than ever. Industry leaders met in New York for a panel, hosted by Burson-Marsteller, to discuss how millennials, mobile, and Amazon made brands rethink storytelling.

“How you engage, excite, and comfort different kinds of consumers” is the key to comms in the commerce revolution, says Burson-Marsteller worldwide chair and CEO Don Baer
“How you engage, excite, and comfort different kinds of consumers” is the key to comms in the commerce revolution, says Burson-Marsteller worldwide chair and CEO Don Baer

The panel
Don Baer, Worldwide chair and CEO, Burson-Marsteller.
Jessica Doyle, VP, comms, Etsy.
Patrick Fitzgerald, SVP, integrated marcomms, FedEx.
Blair Rosenberg, VP, corporate comms, Macy’s. 

Tom Bianculli, Chief technology officer, Zebra Technologies. 

Digital technology, more consumer data, growing customer segments, and other disruptive forces are fueling a continued revolution in commerce. In turn, crafting the proper message is more challenging than ever, but savvy retailers — and communicators in the space — are embracing the opportunity. 

Burson-Marsteller worldwide chair and CEO Don Baer identifies "the four C’s" — choice, cost, convenience, and connection — as the matters consumers care about most. 

Digital and mobile tech has given way to an abundance of choice. Greater competition has driven down cost. 

Multiple delivery options — in store, on demand, and to the home — have brought convenience. 

However, it’s that fourth C — connection — that firmly sits in PR’s wheelhouse. 

"With everything being automated and turned into process," explains Baer, "there’s a human component to this that runs the risk of getting lost. 

"It’s about how you engage, excite, and comfort different kinds of consumers as they’re going through this process." 

Attracting millennials
Millennials and Gen Z’ers are an increasingly important segment of the consumer market. 

Perhaps more than any other demographic, they place a premium on the four C’s Baer mentioned, particularly convenience and choice, says Blair Rosenberg, Macy’s VP of corporate comms. 

In turn, the department store retailer has significantly boosted its efforts to connect with them via personalized services and experiences. 

For instance, Macy’s rolled out a reimagined loyalty program in September, with coupons and discounts personalized to customer purchasing history. 

Its flagship Herald Square location in New York City opened a Samsung hub, complete with a 4D virtual reality roller coaster experience. 

While Rosenberg concedes "not every customer will want to do it," new innovations such as 4D amplify the Macy’s brand experience. Moreover, it has helped bring in new customers. 

"Our core values are being a good retailer that offers customers the best possible experience," she denotes. "That includes these innovative ideas." 

Even brands recognized as leaders in their sectors can take nothing for granted with millennials and Gen Z. 

Take FedEx, for instance. Virtually every consumer, including millennials and Gen Z, has been exposed to the brand, but "not necessarily by their own choice historically," says Patrick Fitzgerald, SVP of integrated marcomms. 

"Increasingly, they will have more choice and control in that transportation decision, so it’s important we make sure the brand gets connected the right way." 

Realizing mobile is critical, has been overhauled to make it mobile first. The company is creating six-second clips and other snackable content. 

The power of e-commerce
FedEx has been forging unique partnerships, such as with online crafting retailer Etsy, in providing its sellers with discounted postage.

"Many small customers didn’t understand what we’re capable of doing and how we can support their business," adds Fitzgerald. "It has been very powerful for us to be on their platform."

While he notes e-commerce is still a relatively small portion of FedEx’s fiscal 2017 revenue of roughly $60 billion, "the retail world is transforming," Fitzgerald says. "It’s also changing how we structure our networks."

Retailers must move away from a commoditized experience, given the impact Amazon has had on the entire sector.

"No one is immune to the Amazon effect," notes Rosenberg. "It’s a completely different shopping experience."

"We’re really focused on being an omnichannel retailer and stores are a huge part of that," she adds. "We’ve edited down our store so consumers can really touch and feel what they want — and find it easily."

In the case of Etsy, the differentiating assets are its online sellers, a community of 1.9 million craft makers.

"We have a tremendous number of stories to tell and we really lean into our makers," says Jessica Doyle, VP of comms. "It’s a storyteller’s delight in terms of talking about the magic of trends."

Etsy trains its sellers on social media and encourages snack-sized content ideal for mobile consumption.

Success stories include user-generated content from Ohhio, which creates videos for chunky, handmade blankets founder Anna Mo sells on Etsy.

"It’s like performance art," offers Doyle. "It’s mesmerizing. I believe those 674,000 views [of Anna’s videos on YouTube] are turning into something that converts."

Those kind of unique people, stories, and products create a connection between seller and buyer that avoids the commoditization that has plagued retailers’ ability to compete outside of price.

"It’s unique and a great place for us to play as communicators, to tell those stories and connect with customers’ hearts and minds," says Doyle, adding that hearkens back to Etsy’s recently refined mission statement: "Keep commerce human."

The other panelists noted the importance of harnessing employees in an authentic way.

Baer sees a huge opportunity here. For instance, Wal-Mart has 1.7 million employees in the U.S., which represents about 1.3% of the American workforce.

"When you think about how you help that many employees connect to the people you’re bringing product and service to, that’s a huge PR undertaking," he explains.

Baer adds "it’s also a major opportunity to make sure that in the process of [automation and digitization], we don’t lose that human connection.

"Finding the way to bring that home to people through many different channels and ways to touch them is what comms is about," he concludes.

The power of ‘not’
With so much competition, differentiation is mandatory to rise above in retail. And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos offers a key piece of advice highlighted during the event.

Bezos has often been asked to identify what will change in retail in the next 10 years. His consistent response: the most pertinent question for retailers should be "What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?"

To explain, Bezos stressed it’s best to build a business strategy around the things that are stable over time.

To that end, the panelists counsel retailers to hone in on the things that won’t change about what their customers want from them and not to veer away from that as they continue to evolve their shopping experiences.

Baer encourages retailers to look at their values to find the answer to Bezos’ question. "Consumers care about brands’ values," he says.

"We work very hard to excavate those values, bring them to the surface, and have those reflected across the board in every interaction and touchpoint."

FedEx boosted its delivery-management capabilities, but Fitzgerald says customers are "more interested in what we’ve done in Puerto Rico or our refusal to ship endangered species — the ways we support the community and the world in responsible and meaningful ways."

FedEx looks at mobile, online, and other formats to expose consumers "to the best parts of our brand." 

Communicating in the future of retail
Prior to the panel discussion, Tom Bianculli, chief tech officer at Zebra Technologies (pictured above), delivered a keynote in which he shared six tips retail brands should heed to craft powerful messages. 

1. Know your audience and what channels they consume

Channel preferences have been "changing pretty dynamically and quickly," he says. By way of example, he reports, "My kids jumped right over Facebook and onto newer channels." 

2. Keep it simple by using relatable examples

Be conversational and friendly — rather than techy, futuristic in nature, and academic — about the transforming store experience. 

3. Use data to reinforce your messages

Fuse data from in-store touchpoints collected by radio frequency identification (RFID) and mobile location tech for "a composite view of what’s happening in the store in real-time," he says. This can help reinforce your message of convenience. 

4. Focus on thought leadership to stay relevant

"Certain things are fundamental truths," suggests Bianculli. "If you can lean into them with conviction, that goes a long way in establishing thought leadership." 

5. Reflect the shopper experience, highlight the so what through storytelling

The story isn’t the tech itself, but how it enables you to deliver on your brand proposition. "We always start with the why in the outcome and back into the tech," he explains. 

6. Measure your success often

"Understand how well the message is received," advises Bianculli, "and pivot based on the kind of feedback you’re getting."

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