How Retailers Can Increase Foot Traffic To Their Stores: By Adapting To The New Reality Of Retail
Brick and mortar retailers need adapt to the needs of modern audiences with more relevant customer experiences.
By Tom Van Soest, CEO, Visual Retailing
Foot traffic to brick and mortar stores is not what it used to be. We’ve known this for a while now. To address and reverse these unpleasant realities of retail, brands need to adapt to new ways to create more excitement and passion across different generations of their shoppers. They need to adapt their processes. They need to realign their thinking. They need to understand the purpose of the high street and shopping mall has changed, and the store isn’t there anymore to act solely as a touchpoint for consumers to purchase products. The store is now there to act as a multi-medial, engaging customer experience catered to each audience. This is the new reality in retail.
Consumers have become more and more demanding. These days they aren’t as compelled as they used to be to take a predefined route through a shopping mall and be drawn in by nice store windows. Now they have a world of products to browse, be delighted and be engaged with directly from the palm of their hand. So why should they enter your stores? Can you answer that question easily? This is a big reason why brick and mortar is struggling. Simply, retailers aren't finding ways to help their physical stores to compete with the benefits of shopping online.
I'm not going to advocate against investing in your online channels. Those channels are where you can reach most of your audience these days. But by no means should a retailer forget the importance of its stores. The store is the first, real tangible impression of your brand. It’s where consumers can actually see and touch your products. It’s where the art of the brand is really showcased by its hardworking visual merchandisers. Visual merchandising expert Eric Feigenbaum describes this point better than I ever could on his recent guest post.
However, it should be up to board level decision makers and their visual merchandisers, buyers, planners and marketers to align themselves with modern consumer behaviour across all generation. They need to work toward a new paradigm that isn’t necessarily revolutionary - but one that builds on your organisational processes by having a cohesive vision of what your brand is, what it should be, and how to build a better one. To do this, there must be a consensus understanding that a lot of mindsets in the current retail landscape are outdated. They are steeped in so much process that there becomes an inertia in making real change.
In order to break through this inertia and charge forward into the new reality of retail, there needs to be a thoughtful, considered approach throughout all organisational levels. This approach needs to agree that the physical store needs to excite more than ever. The store needs to be a multi-medial, engaging customer experience. It needs to speak to your customers needs and understand the place of your stores, not just physically, but emotionally.
First we need to understand the motivations of your customers and understand who your brand is speaking to. This is the first step in driving more of them into your stores. I’ll also talk about some ways I think retailers can create a more intense, loyal connection with them by generalising the main generations of shoppers.
Understanding millennials and modern day audiences
Different audiences require different things from the brands they shop with. It’s not the most groundbreaking thing I’ll talk about, no, but it's that crucial first step in creating a brand framework that speaks most effectively to a specific audience. Let’s try to understand where different customer generations - from millennials to baby boomers - begin to differ in what kinds of experiences they are looking for in order to adapt to the evolving reality of retail.
Growing up with a smartphone in hand, Generation Z are the upcoming cohort of consumers that will form the focus of all retailers as time goes on. They are the post millennial generation. The ones that have grown up with widespread internet usage in every element of their lives.
They haven’t grown up being taken around shopping malls and high streets as much as previous generations. Instead they have grown up with the knowledge that shopping online is the new norm. And because of social media’s influence, they have grown up with high expectations of how brands should engage them with constant levels of content. They would question why anyone would buy from a store when the shopping experience is already so simple - and in a lot of ways, fun.
This generation are the ones that brands need, more than any other generation, to factor into their long term marketing vision and strategy. To drive these feet into stores, brands need to approach these customers just like they would on social media - with stories, engaging events, and consistent content.
Many brands are already doing this by combining limited run product launches, consignments at festivals and pop up stores. These brands want to not just see their wares sitting on racks, but being worn and sold at the events this generation are passionate about.
With this generation, brands should think further about how they are quantifying their success. Just like you would from a social media dashboard, you can quantify your brand’s return on investment with the engagement your activations create. It’s not pure hard sales numbers with this generation. It’s about creating a long term, yet rapidly adaptable vision that aligns with their wants and understands what motivates them - and grows with them.
We generally class these as millennials, the cohort between the at 18-30 age range. They are still very much a part of that sphere of those who have grown up with the internet. However they are the ones who have been most present in the the rapid evolution of ecommerce and retail. This generation of consumers are smart, they’ve seen how brands have jumped onto the omnichannel bandwagon, and they already have a strong understanding of what their own priorities and wants are.
This generation were the first to realise the value of shopping from home to save time. Now grown up and most likely with high amounts of disposable income and full time jobs themselves, they have money to spend on the brands that understand their priorities. They need retailers that don’t just provide them with experiences, but conveniences too. They don’t prioritise the same things their parents did when shopping.
Experiential retail has seen a particular boom with this generation. The pop up store phenomenon started because of them. Online to store delivery services were created to serve these consumers best. They would rather be out with friends and making the most of their spare time, rather than spending hours looking out the window for a delivery truck like they may have done in their youth.
Generation X are the post war generation that grew up in the booming economy and have seen their world rapidly shift around them. They are the ones that physical retail moulded itself around to service their needs. The high street and local shopping areas became the nucleus of the community, but nowadays, that nucleus is lessening in importance. A lot of the fall in foot traffic in to stores has come from this generation being pulled online with the simplification in ecommerce user experiences.
To generalise heavily, again, this generation are loyal to the brands they love, and care about quality products at reasonable prices. When out shopping, they are compelled by up-sells and skilful store displays. Online, they value secure, simple shopping experiences.
Should brands still align themselves to this generation in their long term planning? Of course they should. They should keep in mind all of those things that these consumers care about. They should understand this generation are ageing, but their needs are being moulded along with the evolving environment they live in.
To activate this generation again, it’s about reminding them of the true value of the shopping experience. It's creating product collections that are artfully merchandised and remind them of your brand’s strengths. Ones that offer real value, especially if that value can be sentimental too.
Building a better brand with your buyers, planners, marketers and merchandisers
The expectations for variety in the modern retail landscape are huge. This is a big reason why physical retail has lost its touch - because a few taps on a touch screen can get someone anything they desire.
This means the role of the buyer for omnichannel brands is more difficult than ever. They need to harmonise an incredible selection of products on both the web store and brick and mortar stores of several different sizes. They need to make sure this selection speaks to the right audience and help the brand keep up with new trends at a rapid turnaround. The likes of Primark, H&M and Zara have become the pioneers of this, and you can see it in their growth year-on-year.
Buyers and planners need to integrate with a consistent structure and vision that applies to all stages of the retail organisation. They need to collaborate with marketers and merchandisers to really engage their audiences needs and aspirations, and speak to them through the products they procure. To do this, a rethinking of organisational structure is essential.
The reason why this rethinking is essential in creating a new reality for retail is that, for too long, large retailers have let their departments become insular. A buyer needs to align with the marketing vision. The planners need to align with visual merchandisers at an earlier stage. Decision makers need to become actors in the process, rather than just making their voice heard to validate their place within an organisation.
The retail flow is complex and full of competing roles and responsibilities. Planners need to make sure products are in stock. One single bad experience with a store not having a product in easily sours a customer's perspective and really reinforces that niggling feeling of ‘why didn’t I just order this online?’. Yet some retailers have stores that vary widely in terms of space to merchandise and store the products, adding another layer of complexity to ensuring the right levels of product are in stock. This means planners have a crucial part to play in enabling the customer experience, and make sure it all runs smoothly.
The visual merchandiser's role is tightly integrated with the brand and buyers. They need to find ways of presenting product collections in the most smart and beautiful way possible. But what if the right fixtures to merchandise on aren't available? What if the planner orders too much stock? Where does it go?
Most of the time, the products get marked down to move them out the door and make space for another collection. Will the next collection just do the same? Buyers, planners and merchandisers need to work together at more stages of the retail flow to ensure collections sell through better. It's also about working together smarter, allowing your creatives more creative freedom to explore and build your brand.
But adapting to the new reality in retail and building a better brand isn’t just about your products and the way you get them in to stores and in front of consumers. This is simply a crucial link in the chain that enables the best customer experience, because it’s what you do when customers are in your stores that counts even more.
Creating a more engaging customer experience
As I honed in on earlier, brands need to understand the needs of consumers in the modern retail landscape. They need to do this by realigning their processes. Then the final, and most important link in the chain is putting all of that hard work together at the touchpoint - the in-store experience. That wonderful experience that will keep a customer loyal - both on and offline.
To start, it’s important to understand what a strong customer experience is, what a modern one should be, and the huge amounts of variables that go into it from all levels of the organisation - from planning to execution. To adapt to the new reality in retail, brands need to understand the customer experience fully, and understand how to improve it.
The customer experience doesn’t start just in the store. It starts in the location and how your store compels a shopper to act and come inside. This is where the role of visual merchandisers really kicks in. It’s not just mannequins in the store window anymore. Today's window displays need to be a multi-medial - with digital signage, product, and a feel that speaks to the customer all rolled into one. Remember, retail needs to be exciting again, and it needs to do things that can’t be done online. Your organisation’s visual merchandisers are crucial in helping you achieve this.
Then once you’ve attracted a shopper in-store, it’s not just about alluring their visual senses - it’s about enticing every one of them. And just like I said before, each generation's senses can be captivated by different things. For example, your in-store music choices are one of the easiest ways to create relevance with your target audience. Then there's the way you present your clothes, on which style of fixture. How your store signage looks. It's all visual. Tangible. The whole art of the visual merchandiser comes into play here.
This is where the tenets of experiential retail can be used to your advantage. It’s not just about the products that your planning and buying teams have worked hard to put in stores. It’s about what you can do to activate the experience of buying those products and create a longer lasting attachment to the brand.
Those brand activations are in the realm of your marketers, your brand visionaries. The ones that can analyse what the market wants and find unique experiences to give to your customers, from DJs and events to limited edition product launches, artist collaborations - the possibilities are virtually infinite.
Your organisation needs to empower those visionaries to create and experiment by aligning to a new way of thinking about retail. Understanding what that reality is is the first step.
To sum it up...
Be adaptive. Be collaborative. Don’t be stuck in old ways. Use smart, technical frameworks that can be navigated with ease from board level all the way down. Understand the needs of the different generations of consumers. Increasing the amount of people coming in to your brick and mortar stores requires an agreement of what the reality of your retail should be.
I hope this article has gone some way in triggering those thoughts of how your organisation can fit into the wider retail landscape - now and for future generations.
About Tom Van Soest
Tom Van Soest is the CEO of Visual Retailing. Having worked in the fashion and retail industry for decades, Tom focuses on empowering brands and retailers achieve a smarter working framework through technology and a cohesive vision.