"You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind!"
Where will the next "retail renaissance" take customers? Today, the lines between traditional and virtual shopping are blurring, with some retailers offering both (and catalogs) to further extend their brand presence into the cultural fabric of customer consciousness.
It might be futile to predict the future, but maybe it's a good time to try and see out of this Twilight Zone. Who could have imagined the likes of Home Depot and Lowes just 25 years ago, or the popularity of e-tail and online shopping just 10 years ago? However, previous marketing, branding, and package design strategies are not being replaced wholesale by new methods; instead, retailers are attempting to find ways to merge all their strategies into one seamless message.
The signposts up ahead
The next metamorphosis may be reinventing the whole notion of what retail means to the customer today. The retail experience of the future should offer a journey into a wondrous land of imagination that brings some of the surprise, fun, and discovery of shopping back into perspective.
Retail has to fight back from e-tail and big box mass shopping venues to finally create a truly experiential retail destination that is meaningful enough to not only engage the customer, but entice them to plan on future visits. New retail venues cannot be perceived with the "circus is coming to town" mentality, with customers clamoring for bragging rights to be first to visit. It must become a destination of repetition for a myriad of shopping and entertainment experiences, offering true purchase intent "incentives" to customers.
No matter how grand or simplistic in design the "next" store may be, the bottom line is sales velocity for success. How that visually translates into profitability is the unanswered question, and how that translates to the customer experience and overall satisfaction remains to be seen.
Or is it the other way around? Does the customer experience (which yields customer satisfaction levels) mandate what it will take to drive profitability? Taking a look back, we find that the consumer experience has not changed all that much from the late '80s and early '90s:
• 80% of purchase decisions are still being made at the retail point-of-sale.
• Current shelf sets are either under stocked, as cluttered as ever, or just too confusing to assist in the decision making process.
• At best, most retail environments are difficult to shop, with customers generally frustrated.
Reducing the frustration zone
Smart retailers are creating new, unusual, and innovative ways to act and interact within the retail environment. The goal is to create brand-activated and customer-interactive shopping that take customer beyond the mere notion of buying a product to a memorable—maybe even fascinating—transcendent journey.
One realization that will drive change is that in reality, categories should be perceived and treated as individual selling "pods" or "vignettes." Stores of tomorrow have to move away from being one big vanilla, non-descript transaction box. In impersonal or unhelpful retail environments, customers leave the store frustrated with shopping experience, sometimes with either the wrong product in hand, just a partial project purchase, without confidence in their purchase, or—even worse yet—with no product purchase.
One solution to a more interactive experience may simply be to start the brand dialog with customers by shifting communications at the point-of-sale away from a "product-based" purchase to a "project-based" for ease in decision making. Addressing consumer needs with package and display design will help retailers to start thinking outside of the vanilla box.
Another factor is how retailers are acting as "partners" with product manufacturers but also competing with them by offering their own private label store brands. And, since the reality is that they mandate which products are merchandised, where and how, it is incumbent upon the manufacturer to redefine their brand of innovation and create category leadership through design. At the least, they must have innovation become part of the "corporate soul" so it is considered as existing well beyond the marketing department's periphery.
Shopping patterns and triggers
In the coming years of change, it is absolutely necessary for both retailers and product manufacturers is to understand customer shopping patterns, practices, behaviors, and motivations. What are the practical as well as emotional triggers that drive decision making? What makes a shopper reach for one design over another? What is the right density of product for improved "shopability"?
What makes a shopper decide to drive to retailer A instead of B? What makes a store a "destination" and not just a market?
In advertising, there is USP—a unique selling proposition. What differentiates one brand or ad from another? The same rings true for distinguishing one retailer or e-tailer from another. In any environment of increasing product parity, innovation and design are the differentiators. Thus, by linking the brand with channel partners who are committed to the customers first, a 360-degree experience facilitates profitability.
Customers are demanding more from brands and retailers, and it will be illuminating to see how e-tail evolves. To stay ahead of the game, product manufacturers must innovate and retailers must respond with designs and stores that are experientially driven for a complete shopping destination experience. In the end, it may be consumers who drive innovations that will take us out of the Twilight Zone and into a new retail dimension.
Jacqueline DeLise is v.p. of new business development at Zunda Group in South Norwalk, CT. Zunda Group is a brand identity and package design firm creating brands that inspire and captivate consumer attention at retail. She can be reached at 203-853-9600 x204.