What’s Old is New Again: Retail Customer Intimacy in the Digital Age

In the last hundred years or so, retailing has undergone an incredible transformation. From the simple days of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the shopkeeper knew your name, your shopping preferences and what was going on with your family, to today’s Omni-channel shopping experience, we seem to have made a 360-degree loop back to the good old days.

Let me explain.

Early retail: personal, human-centric, one to one

In the early 1900s retail was a simple affair. The owner of the general store knew his clients, knew about upcoming life events, often knew the problems they faced. He was there not only to sell his clients’ products, but to become a part of their lives and even to help them solve problems they were facing.Retail.jpg

But then came the massification of retail in the 1950s and that all changed. The customer became the customer segment. Day-to-day interaction was replaced by mass advertising. The person-to-person shopping experience was replaced by super stores and malls.

The retail industry separated from the person, and retailers guessed what their consumers needed and created national advertising campaigns to fulfill these real or imaginary needs.

The emergence of eCommerce

Then the internet happened, changing everything. Amazon came on the scene, along with eBay, Walmart, Apple, Netflix and others. Ecommerce became a thing and all of a sudden major retailers like Borders and Blockbuster Video started closing, as well as the local general store.

At the same time a more sophisticated consumer started to emerge. The explosion of technologies trained us to expect more and more. We wanted to shop from home, and we wanted our favorite retailers to remove the complexities that bothered us and to deliver our goods faster and in different ways.

We also wanted these retailers to already know what our needs and wants are, and to deliver customized offers designed for our particular needs.

It’s as if we wanted to go back to the experience of the corner store, where the shopkeeper already knew us and knew what we wanted – but this time having the customized experience delivered by technology instead of a person.

Enhancing the brick and mortar experience with digital technology

But it’s not all gloom and doom for bricks and mortar. In fact, in-person shopping experiences will probably never go away – they’ll just be transformed. Retailers are starting to leverage technology to provide a frictionless shopping experience using Omni-channel retail across all channels: mobile, tablet, desktop and in-store.

The goal is to provide ease of movement between devices with the same ease as when a consumer walks from one store to another.

Mobile applications, beacon technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) are combining to offer that seamless experience. Retailers are leveraging IoT to remove the burden of forcing consumers to go to a crowded cashier line to pay. Now smart shopping carts can add up all the items and instantaneously present the total. Associates at the Apple store can do that with their devices, or better yet—consumers, with their own devices—using NFC, RFID or QR codes.

Amazon Go is launching a new checkout-free service at their recently opened groceries stores that will change the retail payment paradigm forever.

Finally, to help consumers in their purchase decision process, new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) are helping with real-time customized information about the products they want as they walk through the store.

Virtual reality rooms will soon be available to help consumers get a sneak peek of the future. Facebook’s next step is to connect people through virtual reality environments, granting access to virtual reality stores at home is the next big step.

The consumer is always at the center

From the corner store on Main Street, to the virtual reality store in your home, it seems we’ve come full circle. Retailers must choose to invest in innovation with the consumer as the central focus. They must become modern, technology-enhanced shopkeepers, providing a personalized, seamless convenient shopping experience for today’s consumers.

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