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With a string of big names disappearing from the high street, requiring rescue or teetering on the brink, we need to ask, if retail’s battle cry is truly ‘adapt or die’, why have so many chosen the latter in 2018? And as the year draws to a close, which trends will drive the former in 2019?

 

A seamless, frictionless customer experience

A study by consulting firm Walker found that by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Or, in other words, products and services are no longer enough. Customers increasingly prioritise memorable interactions that are relevant and rewarding, delivered at the right time in their journey.

That’s why, in 2019, brands should position themselves as ‘hyper-relevant’ retailers. Ensuring customers get what they desire: value – greater savings, efficiency and engagement, both in-store and online.

For smarter, savvier brands successfully linking on and offline behaviour is the new norm. For example, Ikea’s ‘Place’ app shows you how a piece of furniture will look in your home via your smartphone camera, eliminating the need to visit an out-of-town store several times and imagine what it might look like.

In this way, mobile is an opportunity to add a helpful layer of media, information, and tools to the customer. And so, 2019 will also see smart retailers investing more in their mobile experience. This should go way beyond a responsive website. User experience, conversion rate optimisation and customer journeys will continue to be critical. And of course, search engines reward better mobile experiences.

 

The rise of augmented commerce

According to a report by the International Data Corporation, by 2020, 40% of all commerce transactions will be enabled by cognitive / AI personal shoppers and conversational commerce. With tech transforming retail journeys as well as our daily lives, a truly successful omni-channel approach requires a seamless customer experience. Achieving that requires a more ‘tangible’ presence for customers. Expect to see the rise of augmented reality (AR) marketing in 2019.

Done right, augmented commerce offers deeper brand affiliation, higher levels of interaction and personalisation, and an ‘endless aisle’ with lower operational costs. Whether it’s seeing how a product will look in their home or customising a service, the tech should alleviate customers’ pain points by removing friction.

Image recognition is another area set for growth thanks to its ability to deliver a real value exchange. For example, Pinterest’s 'Lens Your Look' feature transforms a smartphone into a personal stylist. Users take pictures of their wardrobe and get outfit ideas and inspiration.

Along similar lines, technological advances are also presenting new opportunities through social media. Instagram has expanded its shopping service, allowing users to buy items they see in brands’ posts without leaving the platform – and therefore circumnavigating websites entirely.

Voice is on the rise too. Tractica estimates that there will be 1.8bn users of voice digital assistants by 2021. So retail marketers need to develop a voice persona in much the same way they would a logo or colour scheme.

 

Personalisation to surprise and delight

With customer expectations higher than ever, data must be used to deliver personal experiences that surprise and delight, driving further engagement.

The issue for marketers is recognising customers ‘offline’ in a store environment. A solution comes in the form of our faces. Brands in China and Hong Kong are using facial recognition technology to identify individuals and then using, for example, their online browsing history (behavioural data) to inform conversations with store staff.

Alibaba and Guess have FashionAI that combines facial recognition into ‘magic mirrors’ in changing rooms. This allows customers to see what clothes look like on without actually trying them on.

Alibaba has also launched an experimental cashier-less store called Tao Café. Here customers give permission for facial recognition to facilitate payments without queuing. What seems like a novelty now will likely be the norm within a few years.

 

So why will the customer cross the road next year?

Regardless of the headlines, retail is not dead. Far from it. In fact, here lies the punchline. The store still matters, but in 2019 products and services will increasingly not be enough in retail. Customers are increasingly expecting retailers to link the online and offline worlds to create a seamless, intuitive experience that makes buying products quicker, easier and more enjoyable. Therefore the physical store could become the most powerful and measurable media channel available - the hub of customer experiences.

Products can be copied and prices undercut, but a compelling experience is far harder to replicate. With customers valuing moments over physical goods and possessions, experiences are fast becoming the new consumables.

If brands and businesses are not seeking to thrive forever, they are planning to fail eventually. With the experience economy looking to thrive in 2019, the savvier and synced retail marketers will be the ones to capitalise on customer experience - while those who don’t risk ending up as the butt of the joke.

Adam Reynolds, senior copywriter, Intermarketing Agency