Don’t Get Left Behind: 6 Ways Retailers Can Adapt and Evolve along with Customers

Change ahead warning sign

Change. Whether you’re someone who welcomes it with open arms, or you’re the type who tries to maintain the status quo as long as possible, change is inescapable. As the cliché goes, change the only constant thing in the world. And in retail, this statement couldn’t be more true, especially in the last few years!

The retail landscape is currently in massive flux. Customers’ buying habits are evolving as new technologies emerge, and neighborhoods are being re-shaped by new ways people are living their lives. To achieve retail success, merchants must learn to roll with these changes and  capitalize on them. As Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of IdealSpot notes, “Today while companies worry about keeping ahead of their competition; the truly critical issue is keeping pace with their customers.

“Unfortunately, few companies have embraced the structure that allow a strategy and agility to leverage this need for constant experimentation and opportunities to continuously delight customers. If there is one thing I would do today in brick & mortar retail it is to look at the 4 pillars of Amazon.com online success and don’t settle for the status quo in brick & mortar retailing,” he adds.

In addition to learning from retail leaders like Amazon, below are six more tips to help you keep up and evolve with your customers:

 

Keeping up with shifting tastes and preferences

If the tastes of consumers never evolved, we’d probably still be wearing psychedelic prints, bell-bottom jeans, or tie-dye shirts. Fortunately that fashion is in the past. Trends, pop culture, and array of other factors alter people’s perceptions, styles and tastes, which in turn affect their purchase decisions.

Needless to say, retailers who want to thrive in the coming years must keep an eye on shifting trends and consumer tastes then react accordingly. Here are a couple of things you can do to keep up with your customers’ changing tastes and preferences:

 

Have regular conversations with customers and your store’s front-liners

Gathering customer feedback and sentiment sounds obvious, but not everyone is doing it, and even fewer merchants are actually taking action on what they’re customers are saying.

Don’t be one of them.

Stay in touch with your customers by talking to them yourself or by having regular conversations with employees who deal with shoppers the most. Find out what customers are saying, what products they’re looking at, the things that they’re up to, and more. Then once you notice changes in their tastes and preferences, act on them quickly.

That’s what TorontoVaporizer.ca, an online store for vaporizers and accessories, did when they noticed the shifting buying behaviors of their customers.

“Our sales reps are in constant contact with our customers, both on the phone, over email and via online chat and from this daily communication, we are able to gather a large amount of data regarding what people are looking for,” shares Nima Noori, the company’s founder and CEO.

“We noticed that customers started asking less and less for stationary, or ‘at home’ vaporizers and there was a big trend towards portable units that could be moved around and taken on the go. Armed with this customer insight, we were able to update and revamp our product portfolio to offer more choice in portable units and evolve with this industry trend.”

 

Involve customers in product development

Why not let your customers co-create products or weigh in on the items that you stock up on? Actively seek their feedback on your merchandise. It’s a great way to engage them, and you can be sure that you’ll be giving them something that they want.

This is something that premium menswear collective Vincero does quite well. The online retailer collects feedback from its community on what products should get made, then creates small batches to be sold directly to members.

“By allowing our customers to decide which new products get made, we put the power of curation back into their hands, rather than a few top designers,” says co-founder Aaron Hallerman.

“Once our customers curate new products, we produce and keep minimal inventory so that we can remain agile and responsive to customer demands. This allows us to engage our customers quickly and continually develop new products based off of their feedback without the need to buy bulk inventory.”

 

Staying at pace with buying habits and technology

01

Changes in product tastes and preferences aren’t the only things you should keep up with. How people find and purchase merchandise has also evolved a lot over the past several years. Consumers of today are far more informed, entitled, and impatient than they were a decade ago. Thanks to smartphones and ecommerce, they’re now using multiple devices and channels throughout their shopping journeys, and they want to be able to smoothly move from one touch point to the next as they research, browse, and buy.

They also expect to receive products, services, and information quickly. (Hence the popularity of real-time and on-demand services like Uber, Netflix streaming, and Amazon Prime).

Here are some of the things you can do to cater to these modern shoppers:

 

Set up shop online, offline, and on mobile—and make sure they’re all connected

Establishing an online, offline, and mobile presence is great advice, but it’s also incomplete. What retailers should do is set up shop on all these channels, while making sure that their stores can “talk” to each other. Only then will you be able to provide a truly seamless and omnichannel experience.

Say you want to implement mobile and online ordering or in-store pick-up; you’ll need to ensure that your online, offline, and mobile platforms are linked and can easily share information with each other, so you can process orders across multiple channels. One way of doing this is by integrating the right solutions.

For example, if you’re using Vend and want to give your customers the ability to place orders online then either pick them up in store or have orders delivered, you can integrate with Mobi2Go, an online and mobile ordering service for cafes and quick-service restaurants.

A connected and tightly integrated system also gives you better sales and inventory visibility across all your stores. This can help you provide real-time and accurate product information to your customers. So if say, a shopper can’t find a particular item size or color in your store, you can easily look it up in your system and find out which branch has it. From there, you can either offer to ship it to the shopper or arrange for a pick-up in the other location.

 

Personalize customers’ shopping experiences

In addition to fast and seamless, today’s consumers also want shopping to be more personal. In a 2014 survey of more than 3,000 shoppers, predictive marketing company AgilOne found that “Over 79% of US consumers and 70% of UK consumers expect some sort of personalization from their brands.”

One-size-fits-all offers are no longer enough to engage customers. In order to get their attention—and their business—you need to give them personalized shopping experiences.

This can be done by gathering data and managing customer relationships. Collect information on customer behavior and spend; take note of what they bought and how much they spent, then use that information to tailor offers, recommendations, and interactions.

One retailer doing this well is candy store United Sweets. They integrated their POS and customer management system (Vend) with their loyalty solution (Collect), and this has enabled them to easily gather shopper data, so they can reach out with tailored content and offers.

According to United Sweets’ Finn Puklowski, having the integration lets them connect with customers more effectively. “We know who they are, we know what they’re buying, and we can reach out to them and market to them in a really relevant way,” he says.

United Sweets runs a loyalty program called Candy Cult, and being able to know and customize shopper rewards and interactions allows them to provide “the experience of a good small-town owner-operator barista” despite having more than 40,000 customers and eleven outlets.

We’re able “to recognize our best customers, look after them, give them better pricing, give them rewards and really make sure they have a positive experience with us,” Finn adds.

And since all their outlets and solutions are tightly connected, it’s easy for them to gather customer data and reward shoppers across multiple stores or channels.

 

Evolving with neighborhoods and communities

In the webinar 10 Habits of successful retailers, Nicole Reyhle of RetailMinded.com emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the changes in your neighborhood or community.

As Nicole puts it, “Sometimes a community may start very young and urban, but those same people start to get married and start to have babies, and all of a sudden you have strollers being pushed through.”

“Neighborhoods shift,” she adds. “What one neighborhood used to be isn’t always what it is today. And if your store has not shifted or evolved with that, you’re missing out on opportunities to gain sales.

 

Work with your local government

The first step to keeping up with the changes in your community is to determine who’s actually a part of it. Gather demographic data on your neighborhood and go from there. According to Nicole, retailers can do this by turning to their local city ordinance and collecting the data they need to understand who’s in their direct area.

Also note that your local government can do so much more than just provide data. Most have Chambers of Commerce and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that are constantly launching initiatives to reinvigorate the community and support local businesses.

For example, the Historic Core BID in Downtown LA regularly hosts farmers markets and other events to bring local businesses and residents together. They also have a calendar where they list what merchants in the area have going on, and they’re more than happy to give online and social shout-outs to its members.

Do some research on what your local government has in store for businesses, then see if you can participate. Doing so could put you in touch with your community, so you can get to know its members and find ways to deliver what they want and need.

 

Localize your product mix and marketing

Once you’ve gathered data on your neighborhood and have gotten to know the consumers in your area, you’ll need to tailor your store to fit their needs and preferences. This could mean localizing your inventory and tailoring your marketing and communication efforts to your community.

Plenty of retailers are already doing this. Take O’Reilly Auto Parts, for example. As Retail Info Systems News reports, the retail chain has thousands of stores in 38 states, but it ensures that “each O’Reilly store is also a local store, carrying the tools, equipment and accessories that match the specific auto aftermarket needs of the store’s customer base as well as the vehicles they own.”

This strategy lets  O’Reilly serve local customers better, and it also helps them keep each store’s inventory lean and relevant. And as you can expect, it has contributed immensely to the company’s growth.

 

Bottom line

The key to making change work for you (instead of driving you out of business or making you irrelevant) is to anticipate it at all times. Keep an eye out by doing research, gathering data, and listening to your customers, and make sure your organization is open and nimble enough so you can adapt just in time.

How has your business adapted to the changing retail landscape? Tell us in the comments.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.