Keeping Customers Engaged When Virtual and Real World Retail Strategies Converge

By Kenneth Gruskin, kgruskin@gruskingroup.com

Today, fickle and demanding consumers can access virtually anything they want as a result of technology such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. This anytime, anywhere access coupled with what can be referred to as the four ‘C’s’ — convergence, convenience, connection, and cost — are having a dramatic impact on retailers. 

Because the virtual and real world of retail has finally converged for the consumer, retailers must do far more than update their retail environments every three to five years in order to keep customers engaged in a “social experience retailing” environment. In order to stay ahead of their customers’ expectations, they need to update their environments (real and virtual) on an ongoing basis.

To that end, retailers will need to offer their own unique recipe of the four Cs, which are defined as follows: 

The Convergence of social networking, commerce, and technology will create an augmented reality (AR) that will help to close the digital divide that separates our physical and virtual domains. For chain stores, that means that customers may be able to go online and create or order, personalize and customize goods ranging from takeout dinners to a new pair of shoes before heading to the convenience store or department store for pick up.

In addition, another kind of convergence will take place as retailers form brand sharing partnerships with non-competing but complementary retailers to provide even more compelling alignments that will attract customers and get them invited into their lives and communities.

Convenience as afforded by retail products, services, and virtual goods that are provided through multiple physical and virtual channels will become ubiquitous to the end user. Chain retailers will offer neighborhooding through smaller and better trained, localized brick-and-mortar facilities that support its embedded customer base.  In addition, they will offer bundled goods and services to afford one-stop shopping to the consumer.  Imagine being able to pick up milk, bread, eggs, do your banking and pick up your dry cleaning at a convenience store on the way home from work. 

Convenience will also be afforded by the global reach of chain stores, that, as a result, will need to entirely overhaul their distribution system in order to deliver goods and services immediately from anywhere to anywhere to convenience-seeking customers.  Further, technology and systems must also empower those customers to learn, explore, and make knowledgeable, informed purchasing decisions wherever they are.

Connection: Successful retail brands must continuously establish deep, personal connections with their customer base that reflect their value and core beliefs with authenticity if the brand is to be seen as an extension of who “they” are. The brand and retail experience must be literally connected to each other as well and afford accessibility to the individual wherever they are through the web and local brick-and-mortar stores alike. As a result, the design of all of these retail touch points, both physical and virtual, will be more important than ever to keep a brand positioned to be visible, to maintain/improve its perceived value, and to help individuals identify and stay connected with retailers that align with their core beliefs and lifestyle.

Cost: The individual customer will evaluate cost based on how they perceive the value of the product or service being offered to them. For the retailer, cost will be a function of whether the social experience or convenience is the priority.  If retailer is intent upon offering convenience, then lowest cost will be the priority. For those trying to offer their customers the social experience side of retailing, brand equity, alignment, and integration with their customer’s own personal goals, lifestyle/life stage and community will be crucial and cost will not be as much of a factor. 

Chain stores that run the gamut from grocery stores to high-end apparel retailers alike face a compelling opportunity to leverage technology in an effort to offer a new kind of retail experience that not only affords convenience and easy access, but personalized goods and services on demand to an ever more exacting customer.

Kenneth A. Gruskin, AIA, is principal and founder of Springfield, NJ-based Gruskin Group (www.gruskingroup.com), an integrated retail design firm that builds unified brand experiences through architecture, brand development, visual communications, web/interactive, industrial design, interior design, strategic consulting, and sustainable design. He can be reached at kgruskin@gruskingroup.com.