Skip to main content

Retailers need to mimic e-tailers if they are to be competitive

| Innovation and technology

As shopping habits move online, retailers need to rethink the way they operate — especially with e-tailers moving into traditional spaces.

The festive season is traditionally the retail sector’s best performing period, but for some — including Woolworths, Truworths and Mr Price — it was not a very merry Christmas.

While reduced discretionary income and a tightened credit environment are the widely acknowledged culprits, underwhelming financial results from traditional retailers also indicate that shopping habits are changing. Consumers — particularly those in higher income segments — are now savvier and more digitally connected. Traffic, queues and crowds, as well as poor in-store service and limited product availability, make armchair shopping a more convenient and appealing alternative.

To compete for their share of consumer spend, and to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive sector, traditional retailers must take heed of declining non-food sales and develop strategies that embrace the digital world as the touchpoint of choice, while providing compelling in-store experiences that drive traffic to their locations. To achieve this, retailers should change their thinking about stores as transaction centres (which can now be done faster online) and focus more on what their customers want in store — that is, convenience, personalisation and digital integration.

Retailers will need to provide more than just product to the masses; they need to give shoppers something they can’t get online — a tangible experience. Too often, a consumer will walk into a store and not receive any help, but an engaging interaction with a knowledgeable staff member can transform an experience from mediocre to memorable. Training and encouraging frontline teams to actively assist customers will not only contribute to better sales volumes, it also helps consumers build a positive relationship with the brand.

Retail stores also provide an opportunity for consumers to test, try and learn about products. This aspect of the shopping experience cannot be replicated online; e-tailers have identified this limitation and are also beginning to enter traditional players’ space. Google and Amazon were among the first to open physical stores, while in SA Discovery has been among the first to set up shop. These physical e-tailer stores often feature product demonstrations, interactive displays and consumer education. Traditional retailers would be wise to leverage the in-store experience to their advantage.

Consumers are highly connected yet time-poor. With a growing supply of online alternatives, a visit to the local mall on a Saturday morning may not be an appealing option. In addition to streamlining transactions, retailers must also implement ways to bring the products to the people — not the other way around.

Branded pick-up points and pop-up shops provide a viable solution. Consumers order what they want online and, if a delivery service option doesn’t suit them, they can collect their goods at convenient points closer to work or home. In an effort to meet changing consumer needs, the US courier firm UPS has successfully rolled out self-service lockers for its retail clients; in SA, Makro offers lockers at select Sasol petrol stations for customers to collect goods bought online.

Check-out queues are also contentious and something of an Achilles Heel for retailers, but pre-purchase and self-check-out options can ease the congestion. Starbucks now allows customers to place an order through an app then collect their coffee directly from the counter, eliminating the need to pay in store at all. Amazon has taken this concept one step further by allowing customers to literally grab-and-go without paying in store. This approach may not be viable in SA for security reasons, but it does suggest the kind of alternatives being explored.

While most traditional players now have a virtual presence, e-tailers have the design advantage and have built their systems around their customers. Established businesses, on the other hand, are often saddled by legacy IT and silo structures. This not only hinders their ability to be agile and adapt to the changing consumer, it also means they struggle to unite their e-commerce and physical stores’ channels to deliver an integrated experience.

Apps and social media are here to stay, and retailers must up their game when it comes to integrating their on- and offline businesses. When returning an item bought online to a bricks and mortar location, for instance, the retailer’s system must be able to accept the goods and reimburse the customer. The same consistency should also apply to discounts and promotions. To the consumer, the physical and online store are one and the same.

Retailers can use digital channel integration as an opportunity to use the practice of "show-rooming" — an act of examining a product in store then purchasing it online from a competitor at a lower price — as an asset. By enabling staff members to instantly price match and process transactions as they assist customers on the sales floor, retailers can turn smartphones to their advantage.

Big data is giving e-tailers the edge when it comes to intimately understanding what their customers want. By tracking consumer IP addresses and other digital data, e-tailers can understand their customers and provide customised offers and experiences in real-time. Traditional retailers rarely, if ever, have the same level of detailed information about individual consumers — at least until a rewards card gets swiped at the conclusion of the shopping experience.

While food retailers are creating customised convenience through concepts such as "meals for under R100", the jump to personalisation requires more information about individual preferences and patterns. For this reason, traditional retailers who integrate their on- and offline channels, and can engage customers while gathering data through digital means as consumers shop in store, will have the most success delivering personalised experiences.

To stay relevant, retailers must create physical shopping environments that engage customers, and offer a valuable and memorable consumer experience. In the near future, retailers will also need to provide a personalised journey tailored to a customers’ lifestyle habits and preferences. Failing to do so will, in all likelihood, see sales decline as the effort it takes a customer to visit a physical shop won’t be worth the transaction and this time next year retailers’ financial results will have taken a beating again.

• Ahlfeldt is a customer experience consultant.

Pin It

Related Articles

Pick n Pay launches new money transfer service,...

Pick n Pay has set a new standard in affordability and accessibility with the launch of its store-to-store Domestic Money Transfer service. At R8.00 per transaction, it is the cheapest price for customers within retail stores.

Retail tech: what to expect in 2024

By Mike Smollan, Chief Growth Officer at Smollan With technology constantly on the move, the retail industry has no choice but to adapt to keep pace and up to speed with the broader changing face of consumer expectations.

Retail trend riptides: time to sink or swim

By Nicola Allen – Senior Retail Analyst, Trade Intelligence Retail trends do not occur in isolation; they are the result of macro influences that shape consumer and shopper behaviour and retailer strategies. In the ever-evolving world of retail, ...

FNB offers the cheapest licence disc renewals i...

By: Myles Illidge - MyBroadband FNB recently slashed the pricing of its licence disc renewal service from R171 to R99, including delivery, making it the cheapest provider in South Africa.

Woolworths’ cashless service at its WCafé divid...

By: Anita Nkonki - IOL Reports that global retail giant Woolworths will go cashless sometime this month have been met with fierce opposition on social media.