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It’s an unpredictable time for retailers as high street stores battle to stay open while ecommerce vendors increasingly open up new physical shops, proving that there’s no one size to fit all. The Retail Panel, hosted by The Drum at the Big Bang event held at the Science Museum last week, discussed the trends affecting the industry. Panelists agreed that ultimately, it’s not about embracing technologies like AI or questioning whether online or offline works best but figuring out what consumers really want and developing the right strategy and tactics to meet their demands. Microsoft’s strategic sales director, Ben Irons, warned, “Get away from the shiny things; [your approach] needs to be fit for purpose.”

 

Premium retail experiences

With representation from Bing, Google, Facebook, Marin and Feedonomics, the panel – led by The Drum’s senior reporter Rebecca Stewart – addressed the currently instable retail market especially post-Christmas, comparing the recent acquisition of HMV with M&S’ experimentation (and success) with Instagram Stories. 

Customers expect premium experiences, said Facebook’s partner solutions manager, Emily Langston. “Yet overcomplicating them is probably one of the industry’s biggest struggles.” Whether clients implement cross-channel or omnichannel marketing strategies, they need to create more “out-of-the-box solutions.” 

Tapping into consumer’s desires is critical. Of all the ecommerce retailers who have opened physical outlets, they have been surprisingly successful – something Langston put down to “their proper understanding of what consumers are doing online and offline.” Some 50% of purchases offline are still influenced by mobile even though the majority of people are buying offline, suggesting that marketers should prioritise mobile primarily as it can help to boost physical sales and drives the consumer purchase journey before they even step foot instore. Wicks agreed; the traditional physical shop is changing. “It needs a rethink,” he said. “But it’s tough, because many retailers, especially the traditional high street ones, are locked into long contracts which are hard to get out of. Offline is going to be around for a while yet.”

Apple is a good example of a brand that’s listening to its consumers. Irons said,” Youcan have an online-style experience in the Apple store. You can walk in and have a very interaction-free experience and still walk out without a product.” He cites the importance of appealing to the consumer’s emotions in the purchase process.  “We have to remember that in retail, emotions still drive most of the reasons that people buy things. Tapping into that and actually being in a physical environment – seeing, touching, feeling what you’re looking to buy – encourages spontaneity and that feeling of euphoria upon purchase. Online can only replicate part of this.” Wicks reckons that the future of retail will combine both online and offline. 

 

Do you have an Amazon strategy?

Calling it the number one “fastest growing publisher”, Marin Software VP sales, Richard May, said that can be hard for other brands to compete with Amazon which is why many are implementing their own Amazon strategy and listing themselves on the platform. Most publishers are also trying to convert into shopping channels of their own, eager to capitalise on the profitability offered in the digital marketplace.

Feedonomic senior director of global accounts, Patrick Hentschel said: “It’s all about marketplaces in terms of what we're seeing as a growth trend. That presents immediate challenges for retailers to work out order synchronisation for the first time. Before that, they just had to keep up with their website, now they have to figure out how to maintain their inventory counts between these disparate systems. 

“As new challenges present themselves; that’s where we step in. Agencies are also having to think about where they fit into the marketing place game, because there’s not always an obvious model for how to monetise marketplaces.”

 

Is there a perfect measurement solution for ecommerce?

Inevitably, as regulations around data privacy and GDPR changed last year in the UK, marketers had to rethink how they captured customer details. 

“We’re all trying to engage consumers - whether it’s from a platform POV or brand POV,” said Irons. “As we engage consumers, we need to process the data that’s coming in, in real time. The feedback is instant. And we can see how people are engaging. It’s constructive attention. It should be there because that’s the nature of branded performance. If you’re clear with what you’re measuring, then the results can feed into the decision-making process.”

However, May thinks that a perfect measurement solution doesn’t currently exist. Google’s shopping specialist Michael Wicks agrees. He urged marketers to simplify the process and not obsess over the finite details. “There’s a real danger that you could spend years trying to crack the perfect omnichannel online-offline solution. But to what extent can we trust our technology? It’s not perfect. 

“Measurement as it is today – and I foresee this for the next while – is going to be based on a combination of science and assumptions. Done is better than perfect; you’re better off having something that’s 70% of the way that you can launch ASAP rather than wait years.”

Data can be hugely valuable in measuring success. May added, “We need to leverage AI to make sure we get the right message out at the right time in front of the right person. The key thing is to make sure we don’t let AI get out of control.” 

So long as we continue to feed AI relevant information, there’s no need for creatives to feel threatened by AI, assured the panelists. Wicks agreed, “automation will save you some time – you gain efficiencies, in time and spend. That time can be best spent trying to figure out what data to feed in and what assumptions to make and what decisions to help power the machine.”

Ultimately, whatever strategy is put into action or technology is available, marketers shouldn’t lose sight of the consumer. 

“Retailers have got to remind themselves that the customer comes first and must be at the heart of everything we do,” said Wicks. “How they’re treating their data, the type of experience they have on their website, they’re thinking about how they’re engaging with their ad units and ad formats - the customer really has to be at the heart of everything. 

“If GDPR has done something for good, which I think it has, it’s to put the customers at the heart of the people’s thinking.”