Mediocre Retail Won’t Survive: How a New Generation of Shoppers is Changing Retail

February 23, 2018

Perhaps the saddest part of walking into a store filled with overstuffed racks and instantly feeling your anxiety levels peaking is that this horrendous experience isn’t an anomaly. 

We’ve all witnessed the clothing racks in disarray. Instead of being organized by article type or size, a typical shopping experience is more like dealing with racks piled high with various pieces tossed there by the shoppers who didn’t want them. As horrible as all of this sounds, this isn’t even why I loathe in-store shopping so much. Whenever I do make the effort to visit a physical store, I can never find the particular item I saw online that lured me into the store in the first place. Even worse, I can never find an associate to help me locate it.

So, here’s what ends up happening: after an hour or so of browsing, I end up lugging around pounds of clothes to the cramped fitting rooms. I’m then told that I can only have a certain number of items in the fitting room at a time, so half my clothes need to stay outside. And if something doesn’t fit and I need another size, back out onto the battlegrounds I go.

Today’s v. yesterday’s consumers

In today’s consumer-centric world in which we’ve all become accustomed to personalization, convenience, and the instant gratification that technology provides, why would retailers expect their shoppers to be satisfied with yesterday’s shopping experience? Who has the patience, let alone the time, to spend hours on an experience like this when you can browse, order, and return from the comfort of your couch?

The reality is, the influence of smartphones and the ease of online shopping have completely changed consumer behavior and the way we interact with brands. Expectations for brands have changed not only in online shopping, but also when shoppers step inside a physical store.

Nike Brand president Trevor Edwards famously said “undifferentiated, mediocre retail won’t survive,” meaning retailers that only think about fashion and fail to connect with consumers and the digital brand experience they provide will eventually see sales suffer.

Just ask consumers. Time and time again, studies tell us that cost, choice, and convenience are always going to be relevant, but today’s empowered consumers also care about the experience that accompanies a brand. And that’s the biggest differentiator separating shoppers today to yesterday’s: the need to connect to the actual experience, not just the brand name alone.

Retailers, like Reformation, are doing it right

Yael Afalo, former model and founder of Reformation, had just this in mind when she launched San Francisco’s tech-inspired location in 2017. Though sales were strong for the brand, which first came on the scene in 2009, Afalo noticed Reformation’s Yelp reviews left much to be desired when it comes to customers’ experiences in-store.

Inspired by Silicon Valley and Tesla’s unique approach to ordering cars, Afalo set out to see if integrating technology into the store in a thoughtful way could solve her customers’ frustrations. It did.

The first time I walked into Reformation in San Francisco, I knew this was going to be a different kind of retail experience. The storefront is clean, open, and inviting. Spaced out on a few racks around the showroom are best-sellers, and two plush white couches sit in the center of the room. Everything about the showroom was inviting and peaceful. I wanted to sit on those couches. I wanted to browse the best-sellers. I wanted to take a break from my day, forget about whatever it is that’s worrying me, and just dive into this safe haven.

Here, I would find peace and the perfect outfit.

Along the walls, there are large touch screens that allow shoppers to browse all the items on the floor. By clicking on the item’s image, you can instantly see if your size is available. Even more impressive: the days of hauling around hangers of dresses are over. At Reformation, shoppers can use the screens to choose merchandise that will be picked up by sales clerks and placed in the dressing room before you even set foot inside. No more searching the racks. No more walking around the store with 10 pounds of clothes on your arms. Those days are long gone.

And just in case you still aren’t convinced Reformation doesn’t know its audience, inside each fitting room is a charging station so shoppers can take as many selfies as their heart desires. They can use their phones to send photos to friends for feedback or to do further research on particular items or to sync to their music for a truly personalized experience–all without worrying that they’ll zap their battery life.

What’s most impressive about Reformation is how earnestly the company thinks about its customers. Not just the quality of the clothing, or how it fits, or the standard things yesterday’s shoppers used to care most about, but also how the brand experience is for each customer–the entire journey, from start to finish.

When thinking about how to utilize technology in retail, it’s not about splurging on a gimmicky activation that customers don’t really need; it’s about using technology in a meaningful way. It’s about utilizing data and insights to understand consumers pain points and using technology to solve those existing problems. Today’s shoppers are looking for seamless experiences, not the anxiety-inducing, messy, unorganized showrooms of the past.

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