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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It’s true that e-commerce has dramatically changed the way the average consumer shops. Steady in-store foot traffic has been slumping for years, while online research becomes more prevalent for today's consumers. Before making big purchases -- those that cost $500 or more -- approximately 80 percent of shoppers start their journey with online research.

Simultaneously, smartphones are playing a bigger role in shopping, and even connects shoppers to brick-and-mortar stores. While browsing in a physical store, 73 percent of shoppers are on their smartphones doing research on the products they consider buying.

In other words, even outside the realm of e-commerce, a brand’s web presence still impacts a customers’ purchasing decisions. Brands can use this knowledge to their advantage by developing apps that help users learn more about their products. While some companies may be tempted to rely on their mobile sites, apps offer benefits that mobile sites don’t.

Advantages of mobile apps for retailers:

According to a recent survey, consumers spend about seven times longer on mobile apps than sites or browsers. Shopping apps are also rising in popularity: In 2014, mobile shopping app downloads increased by a whopping 170 percent.

It’s also worth noting that among customers who turn to their browsers for research, 60 percent begin on a search engine, 61 percent read customer reviews before making a decision, and 51 percent abandon their carts if a digital annoyance happens before customers reach the point-of-sale.

Additionally, during the research and transaction phase, a lot of other distractions on the internet could keep shoppers from completing the transaction. With a mobile app, this isn’t as much of a problem.

Apps also allow retailers to customize their own analytics so they can more effectively track customer behavior. An app also keeps your brand at top of mind for customers. Think about it: they’re constantly seeing your brand’s icon on their mobile device and soon enough, you’re integrated into their daily life.

cross-channel apps

What's in an app?

Just because an app can help boost sales, doesn’t mean that any ol' app will succeed. Your app needs to  genuinely offer useful features that make life easier for the consumer.

1. Embracing new technologies is one way to offer features that are truly valuable. For instance, augmented reality technology is capable of allowing users to “try” certain products at home before making the purchase decision.

Case in point is Wayfair Inc.’s app called Wayfair View, which allows users to superimpose images of furniture or fixtures onto images of their homes, so they can better understand what an item might look like in the physical space.

IKEA released a similar app. Sephora uses AR to let users “try on” makeup virtually. When customers can try products via their mobile devices, they’re more likely to head to a store and make a purchase.

2. Gamification is another way of making an app valuable to customers. Just consider Nike’s app, which lets users connect the app with a FuelBand. They can then post goals, track workouts, and challenge others to competitions. The app tracks a user’s achievements, rewarding them with loyalty points they can trade in for benefits, like advanced workouts and customized product ordering. Gamification makes the app fun, while also driving purchases and brand loyalty.

3. Optimizing the brick-and-mortar shopping experience is another way brands can connect all points on the customer journey. For example, New York ice cream brand Van Leeuwen partnered with PayPal to offer location-based promotions. Users who download the PayPal app and enroll in the program are alerted with coupons and similar promotional offers whenever they get near one of the ice cream shops. Other brands could develop apps that offer coupons when users step into a designated geo-fenced field.

While mobile sites are crucial for brand building, apps have huge potential to greatly improve the retail experience while keeping your brand constantly in customers’ minds. Develop one that customers truly value, and you’ll see sales boost in both your virtual and brick-and-mortar stores.

SEE ALSO: The secrets to successful brand building tomorrow > 


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