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The Top 3 Challenges Facing Retailers in 2019

Alex Timlin
Alex Timlin , VP, Retail & E-Commerce Vertical

In the wake of NRF 2019, I offered some reflections on the way that retail was changing, and how it compares to the online shopping experience… and as it stands today, there’s still really no comparison. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that retail is dead. It’s just changing.

The major difference that defines retail vs. online is the extent to which personalization can be achieved. In a digital ecosystem where CX reigns supreme, personalization is sort of important (I’m underselling it!).

“The major difference b/w #retail vs. #onlineshopping is the  extent to which #personalization can be achieved” says @ARTimlin       CLICK TO TWEET

I’m still an advocate of a holistic approach that pairs a well-oiled online machine with the in-store physical experience where it makes sense for certain brands. But we need to “keep it real,” and remain cognizant of the evolving set of challenges facing retailers. Let’s explore a quick update on the current state of retail to help you understand what’s holding back many e-commerce companies from thriving in making this transition.

“2018 has been one of the best years for retail in a decade. While the economic environment will be more complicated in the year ahead, retail CEOs are feeling optimistic about 2019.” — Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation

Retail Isn’t Dead, but It’s Changing

According to Forrester’s recent report, The State Of Retailing Online 2019: Omnichannel, Marketing, and Personalization, retail stores are actually growing — 54% of B2C brands are planning to open new physical stores in 2019.

For a select few, the in-store experience will be the main revenue driver; but for most, this approach will complement the online experience. As described via Forbes,

“Retailers still face hurdles with respect to personalization: limited data, infrequent visits even from their best customers, and product catalogs that are too small to drive incrementally or any lift in conversion.”

Herein lies an important distinction: depending on how you slice and dice it, while e-commerce is growing, retail isn’t necessarily declining. The overarching idea here is that retailers need to begin to think “omnichannel” (by creating that “seamless experience” and developing a “channel-agnostic” approach to create a “connected customer journey”).

Buzzwords aside, it’s about finding the right mix for you. Industry stats are telling and nice to have on hand, but what does your data tell you?

In-Store… Disrupted

The most valuable brands in the world, like Apple and Amazon, are changing the way stores operate by innovating their customers’ experience.

London’s Apple store — like every other — offers a unique and customized brand experience where consumers that “sign in” can actually receive a pretty personalized interaction.

These brands set the stage for all others. The question is shifting from “Do you have a good in-store experience?” to “What are you doing differently with your in-store experience?”

Anthropologie, for example, organizes in-store events, including yoga sessions, and even provides personal fashionistas who help put together, decide on, and choose specific styles for customers. Lush’s extra-sensory experience allows customers to actually demo products in-store prior to purchase — and offers a plethora of interactive options. Nordstrom offers alterations and other perks like curbside pickup and espresso bars. Tesla, The North Face, and Under Armour also offer dynamic retail experiences.

Some online-only innovators like Made.com and MissGuided are following in their footsteps, opening physical stores solely to connect more intimately with their customers. Did you know that, in the U.S., 40% of offline purchases are made after conducting research online? If they’re not already loyal brand advocates, your consumers have likely educated themselves before making a purchase, effectively requiring your sales team to be more knowledgeable about your products.

The Role of the Smartphone In-Store

84% of shoppers use their smartphone while in a physical store to find reviews, product information, and to do an online comparison. And if you can leverage technology to experiment with and integrate some degree of AR/VR, you’ll be on the leading edge.

Regardless, retailers would be well-served to optimize their mobile storefront by connecting digital experiences with in-store actions. Again, we come back to this elusive idea of omnichannel… and making it more real than it’s ever been.

Case in point: if a consumer is logged into their account browsing items in your store, you’d, ideally, be able to have that information on hand when they come into the store. Of course, this is easier said than done — most associates just aren’t equipped yet to be able to recognize who a shopper is when they walk in. In the near term, an emphasis needs to be put on what you can control: creating a swift mobile experience from a centralized customer profile and unified database.

Final Thoughts

We’ve been singing this tune for a while, now. Retail is changing… it’s not extinct, but it’s becoming an auxiliary revenue-driving channel for most brands. Of course, for some, it’s as robust as it’s ever been. But can it be sustained? Is it worth continuing to invest resources in? That depends on many factors.

For brands that do not pay heed to the very in-your-face challenges that the retail channel presents, it’ll be increasingly difficult to maintain success. For those that continue to keep (or build a new) physical store experience, it’s time to figure out how to connect it to your other online channels and divert from “the pack.” Otherwise, you risk simply becoming a statistic. ◾

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About the Author


Alex Timlin is VP of Retail and e-Commerce Vertical at Emarsys where he helps drive adoption and growth across 2,000+ clients in more than 100 countries. Alex is a long-time member of the Direct Marketing Association’s Customer Engagement Council, Marketing Intelligence Hub, and is a regular industry speaker on marketing, customer success, and SaaS technology.

Connect with Alex: LinkedIn @ARTimlin

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