6 Questions Surrounding Retail’s “Apocalypse”

It’s clear that retail in the US needs some major transformation. There is no denying the steady, multi-year decline in US brick-and-mortar store traffic as more retailers are closing significant portions of their chains or liquidating their businesses entirely. But is it all doom and gloom?

While in-store traffic has trended down, retail sales in the US have experienced continuous growth overall and the National Retail Federation is predicting another strong year with a +4.4 percent increase in sales in 2019. Much of that growth does come from e-commerce sales, but more retailers are reevaluating the role of their brick-and-mortar stores to safeguard the bulk of their business. Even digital pure-play retailers like Warby Parker, Untuckit and Wayfair are expanding beyond their online platform by opening brick-and-mortar locations across the US.

But the question remains: is US retail on life support, or are we on the verge of a complete rebirth? Let’s ask two of Empower’s retail experts Amy Johnson, senior director of media integration & Laura Nix, vice president of client leadership.

1. Has the retail apocalypse truly arrived?

Who can forget last year’s heartbreaking photo of Geoffrey the Toys R Us giraffe with his packed suitcase and final wave goodbye amongst the empty shelves of his store? Turns out Geoffrey had lots of sad company. According to commercial real estate firm the CoStar Group, over 250 million square feet of commercial retail space has been closed within the last two years in the US. This staggering pace of closures is expected to continue in 2019 as the Business Insider predicts up to another 4,000 physical store locations will be closing this year alone. Consumer shifts to spending online, experiential spending vs. material goods, and subscription-based juggernauts such as Amazon are major contributors to these store closures. But if we are being honest, retailers have been complacent over the years. The lack of innovation in the physical space has left shoppers uninspired sending retailers in this downwards spiral at the brick and mortar level.

Empower’s Recommendation: Evolve or die. Retailers can’t rest on their laurels and rely only on what has worked in the past. They must have a gameplan for testing and learning across the enterprise. This includes testing different store formats, creating a new relevant in-store experience, utilizing store locations as distribution centers, or by leveraging some of your best assets, your associates. Despite pervasive tech usage with retail shopping at our fingertips, humans still crave person-to-person interaction. Give shoppers a reason to visit your brick-and-mortar stores with an experience they can only get at your stores.

2. OK, but is retail really dead?

Retail is not dead. It’s not even on life support. The retail industry is experiencing a rebirth right now as we speak. While retail in the US is at a crossroads, the future has arrived in China under the leadership of Alibaba. Alibaba is best known for its online marketplace, but it’s goal to combine the best of both online and offline retail with a complete digitized experience should inspire US retailers. Alibaba has created a New Retail which has revolutionized all areas of retail including grocery, automobile, luxury, and even the lifeblood of many societies, the mom-and-pop stores. Alibaba is mastering the power of the mobile device to empower the shopper and to help save the retailer.

Empower’s Recommendation: Go above and beyond to do what’s right for your customers. This will make you stand out from your competition. Listen to your customers and streamline the buying process with a frictionless experience that keeps them coming back.

3. Is brick-and-mortar shopping a thing of the past?

Brick and mortar shopping as we know it must evolve. Brands that develop their stores into a more experiential physical display of the brand will stand out. Consumers want to experience the brand as part of their purchase journey. Brands like Macy’s know they can be much more than a retail destination. They are an entertainment brand, steeped in tradition. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a staple in the hearts of America since 1924. They are leveraging that heritage to bring to life store experiences, called STORY that reflect “Magic Moments” in the current fashion climate with refreshed content experiences seasonally.

Empower Recommendation: Leverage your retail space as a medium. Create a medium that makes an impact. Don’t just serve an impression, but create a lasting impression.

4. Are retailers taking more risks with bold positions in the marketplace?

Retailers are doing more than just having philanthropic or charity connections. They are taking a stance on what matters most to them. Brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods have stopped selling firearms in its stores in response to school shootings across the US. Levi Strauss & Co. was founded by immigrants and vocally opposes certain laws that restrict immigration. Best Buy has doubled down on investing in their employees because they know it sets them apart. But much like Migos, they walk it like they talk it, by taking care of their employees with perks like backup child care for their associates.

Empower Recommendation: Have the courage to stand for something more than the short-term sale. Plant the flag and live your company mission and values by leading with conviction.

5. Should brands shift their focus on the next customer once a consumer makes a purchase?

Only if you want your brand to follow Geoffrey the giraffe to the unemployment line. The purchase point becomes an invaluable opportunity to solidify the relationship with your customers and help to foster an ongoing connection with that customer.

Empower Recommendation: Retailers should leverage post-purchase channels including texts, emails and receipts to customize and nurture the relationship with purchasers. Invest in a CRM program and test and learn with a variety of messages, offers and incentives. This will lead to the next purchase or brand interaction increasing retention and loyalty.

6. Does winning in retail mean solely focusing on driving optimal ROAS?

Retailers are in the business to drive sales and grow profit margin. But when retailers only chase the most efficient ROAS, they end up neglecting to invest in the brand with an acquisition strategy that is designed for the long game. The result over time has a negative impact on brand equity and ultimately erodes the base volume of sales.

Empower Recommendation: A balance of a brand building as well as short-term activation are necessary for long term sustainability. 

Despite the ongoing news cycle announcing the next chain of store closures, the retail category could very well be on the upswing. But it requires the most savvy of companies to capitalize on the opportunity and give shoppers a reason to shop with them. In our fast-paced world, it’s now the consumers who are in the driver’s seat. They don’t “go” shopping, they are always shopping.

It’s critical for retailers to recognize and evolve to stay in front of the ever-changing landscape. Creating seamless interactions, in-store experiences, taking a stand and staying true to their brand is critical for retailers to be successful. It’s an exciting time to be in retail and no time for retailers to stand by and watch the paint dry.

Constant innovation is the only way to stay in the game.

Empower’s Retail Center of Excellence helps its retail clients navigate the retail landscape and innovate to stay ahead of their competitors.

Sources:

  • Business Insider 2017 & 2018
  • NRF Big Show 2019, “Magic Moments”, “Leading with Conviction”, “Innovate or Die”, “Post Purchase Communications”
  • Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dicks-sporting-goods-to-remove-guns-from-125-stores-11552400663
  • Ad Age: https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/buy-rebrands-plans-hire-house-creative-team/313425/ 

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