Comment: What consumers want from retailers

In a rapidly changing shopping environment, retailers need to continuously transform their business, their culture, and their systems in the quest to serve the new normal.

Chasing sales and market share to achieve this by building the required capabilities into the business will be expensive, placing pressure on margins. By understanding the basic needs of shoppers, and looking at the business through their eyes, retailers can identify investment priorities, relieving such pressures.

With this in mind, Planet Retail undertook global consumer research to reveal consumers' must haves at every touch point. Here, I’ll share some to the findings from the UK on what consumers want from retailers in achieving "omnichannel", or what they refer to as "shopping". What is apparent is the need to adopt a customer centric approach to the path-to-purchase. This should make buzzwords that are meaningless to the consumer, irrelevant to retailers. All the overused and under-defined buzzwords should be forgotten and the focus on implementing the right technology and strategies that facilitate how consumers want to shop, interact and engage with retailers, made a priority.

Retail goes beyond the product, it is about the experience, and stores are crucial to fulfilling this. But it is more than retailing; it is about hospitality, placing this front and centre through exceptional service, customer engagement and interaction, and then using the canvas of the store to create a compelling atmosphere in which to deliver it.

When looking at using technology to enhance in-store experiences, Planet Retail found that 15% of consumers use in-store kiosks, while the same percentage interact with staff equipped with a tablet computer. 37% log into retailers' free in-store Wi-Fi. Retailers should look to arm staff with the tools needed to interact with customers so they can deliver exceptional service, and provide in-store technology to enable "DIY" shopping. Technology should not be used for technology's sake. If there's not an ROI – not immediately, but eventually – or it doesn't solve a pain point, the viability of implementing it should be considered.

The use of smartphones during the shopper journey has led to an empowered consumer, able to check prices, compare products and share experiences instantly via social media. This has created the need for complete visibility from retailers in terms of pricing and product availability. Planet Retail’s research found that 50% of consumers want to be able to use their phones to quickly and easily compare prices, while 37% want to be able to use their phones to order out of stock items instore for home delivery. This makes inventory optimisation, supply chain agility, and visibility across all channels imperative. However, it is also about making stock available in the right channel at the right time. Planet Retail found that 27% of consumers wanted to be able to use their phones in-store to find items they've saved in their online "wish lists" or "shopping baskets", while 24% wanted to be able to use their phones to scan items in-store to save to their online "wish list" or "shopping baskets". Facilitating this type of cross-channel shopping is becoming a necessity.

As retailers embrace instore Wi-Fi, there is a growing opportunity to give consumers contextual offers, mitigating the impact of showrooming. Planet Retail found that 33% of consumers are influenced by personalised promotions when choosing a retailer, and that 42% want to receive real-time promotions when in-store via their mobiles. Now, retailers will need excellent customer data management to achieve this level of contextual promotions, but if they can engage customers at the point of purchase with an offer too tempting to refuse, in-store conversion rates will increase.

Consumers are becoming comfortable using their mobile as a payment device, with Planet Retail finding 26% wanting to use their phones to pay for items in-store. While the proliferation of mobile payment solutions may impede acceptance by retailers, if consumers are expecting to be able to pay using their mobiles, retailers need to be able to oblige.

Those getting fulfilment capabilities wrong will see a detrimental impact on sales and brand advocacy. Planet Retail found that 51% of consumers' choice of retailer is influenced by flexible delivery times and options, while 58% are encouraged to choose a retailer offering same or next day delivery, and that 59% are influenced by the ability to return unwanted items to their nearest store. Currently 35% of online shoppers collect their purchases instore. Providing choice and flexibility when it comes to fulfilment is now a given. In looking to achieve stock transparency for the customer, the use of RFID technology can help retailers accurately manage inventory, track and trace orders.

Retailers should build closer relationships with their customers, enabling them to share experiences with peers. This is highlighted by Planet Retail finding that 30% of shoppers take information on social media into account when making a purchasing decision. The monetisation of social media is about influencing spending decisions, and building brand advocates through genuine engagement with consumers.

Although shopping has changed, the principles of retailing – great products, superior service and compelling curation – remain. Catering for modern shoppers will require retailers to be agile, nimble, experiment continuously, innovate quickly and carry out change immediately. Visibility and consistency are now important – whenever and wherever the customer is. Hopefully, we will begin seeing retailers move beyond buzzwords, and focusing on making them happen.

Planet Retail's Malcolm Pinkerton writes a regular eCommerce column for Essential Retail.

Helen Slaven, managing director of Planet Retail, will be presenting a session on 'Global Trends & Forecasts 2014 – Drivers of Change in International Retail' as part of the RBTE 2014 conference programme.