Bringing a personal touch back to Retail

Having returned from the annual National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show conference in New York I am increasingly excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for retailers. Each year retailers and solution providers from around the globe gather to discuss the latest trends in retail and share best practices around how best to adapt to the road ahead.

The central theme of this year’s show was focused around bringing the human element back to the retail experience. This echoes the sentiment that is our raison d’etre here at Empathica – retailers and consumers need to reconnect at a human level. The engine of the global economy depends on it.

Retail truly is the engine of the global economy when you take a moment to study some staggering statistics:

  • Retail supports 1 in 4 jobs in the US economy
  • Retail in the US is forecast to grow 3.4% in 2012 (compared to estimates of US GDP growth of 2.1% to 2.4%)
  • Retail contributes over $2.5 trillion to America’s GDP each year

From the opening keynote by former president Bill Clinton, through the educational sessions I attended, and the conversations I had with other delegates, it’s clear that retail provides a pathway out of the recession. A back to basics approach is needed to running a business. Most people have a favorite retailer where employers and customers’ have elevated their relationship to that of a friendship. If not, then you have heard stories from parents and grandparents of a time when the locally focused small businesses were able to deliver a very personal experience to their loyal customers. As time went on, successful businesses began to grow, and sadly achieved much of this scale by focusing on growth and increasing their points of distribution often to the detriment of those necessary friendships and relationships.

Today’s innovations in technology have created a turning point in the world of business.  Technology is now becoming a tool allowing business owners to rebuild these relationships and maintain them on a global scale.

The challenge that now emerges is how to convert this capability to an actionable model.

  • Retailers need to actively solicit feedback from their customers and then engage with them at a deeper level. This can be done in three ways. Use marketing science to understand what drives loyalty. Dig deeper… knowing for example that friendly service outranks other loyalty drivers isn’t enough. The real question is, what are the elements of the experience that build a belief that this brand is friendlier than all others?
  • Deliver a consistent brand experience at the ground level. I argue that its more important for most retailers to become more consistent than it is for actual improvement in their overall service quality scores. Reduce the anxiety and make the choice simple for customers by letting them know ahead of time exactly what they’ll get.
  • Finally, use technology to help personalize the shopping experience. Social media, mobile phones and the new consumer behaviors they foster have created tremendous innovation opportunities. It’s interesting that one of the competitive advantages online retailers have developed over the last few years is a much deeper personal relationship with many consumers. Recommendations, complimentary products, remembering history and preferences… in many ways technology has effectively allowed online retailers to personalize a highly impersonal experience.

I leave you with an interesting exercise that I was challenged with by one of the speakers at the conference. Each day when we all prepare for work, we should challenge ourselves to complete this phrase “What the world needs now…” (yes I know I can Google the remainder of the Burt Bacharach lyrics). Such a simple yet profound phrase can help put the value of what we all do each and every day in a new context.

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