When we look back on 2020, it will be remembered as the year the interpersonal world changed as we knew it. People who only knew “zoom” as something a race car did came to depend on Zoom’s ability to keep their business and educational worlds connected. Grubhub taught people how not to starve while avoiding human contact. Peloton not only put $2,000 bicycles into homes but built an interpersonal exercise phenomenon. Netflix, Apple TV and Hulu invited the demise of the movie theater. And a new customer experience evolved.
No change was more significant than the shift to online retail. According to eMarketer, e-commerce sales in 2020 tallied $749.5 billion—a 32.4% jump from 2019. Online shopping during the holidays exceeded $188 billion; that reflects a 32% growth over the holiday season in 2019, according to Adobe. Retailers with $1B+ in sales grew holiday revenues over smaller retail competitors, thus benefitting the most from this seismic shift.
“We believe consumer shopping behaviors will permanently change,” said Cindy Liu, senior forecasting analyst, eMarketer. “Many consumers have either shopped online for the first time or shopped in new categories. Both the increase in new users and frequency of purchasing will have a lasting impact at retail.”
For retailers that stepped up their online experiences, the benefits were instantaneous. The number of businesses adding an e-commerce shopping cart to their websites during the pandemic increased 32%, according to a ZoomInfo study. Consequently, for those slow to move, the results could be long lasting.
“Retailers need to stop expecting business to return to normal. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, brick-and-mortar retailers were fighting a fierce battle against Amazon and other e-commerce players,” said Denise Lee Yohn in the Harvard Business Review. “Those challenges have accelerated at a staggering speed.”
Adapting for the New Customer Experience
So what should photo retailers be doing?
“Retailers can’t afford to be in a wait-and-see mode,” said Yohn. “First, they need to reimagine their baseline requirements and then turn their attention to taking their customer experience to the next level.”
Many of you have already made extraordinary moves to comply with local health and safety regulations. It’s almost the price of entry to stay in the retail business. And this hasn’t come without significant costs. Things like controlling the number of customers in stores, instituting contactless transactions as well as improving the speed of service were critical to having customers feel safe in the retail environment.
However, in addition to the in-store experience, retailers also need to offer a simple and seamless e-commerce experience—from browsing to researching, selecting, purchasing and also returning/exchanging. Customers will no longer tolerate subpar digital shopping, as they are now “pros” at what works and what doesn’t.
“Retailers have to make sure their sites are mobile-responsive; offer integrated services such as ‘buy online pick up in store’ (BOPIS); and deliver a consistent, reliable digital experience across devices and channels,” added Yohn. “Most retailers with roots in brick and mortar simply try to replicate their in-store experience online, but such efforts are fruitless and misguided. Beyond the basic transaction, customers don’t expect a virtual experience to be like an in-person one; nor do they want it to be.”
Investing in some unique digital capabilities—like real-time inventory management, predictive analytics, AI-powered search and personalization—can create a new experience that can transform your brand. An inventive e-commerce experience, tied into the convenience of your in-store capabilities, can set you apart.
A Compelling In-Store Experience
At the same time, consumers are anxious to return to normal. Many of you have told me that store traffic has returned somewhat to pre-pandemic levels. I believe that our category is one that needs questions answered.
What’s more, making photo stores a destination is more than just a shopping experience; it’s a respite from staying at home and staring at the four walls.
So how can we drive people back into stores when so many shoppers have discovered e-commerce for the first time? “As a result of Covid-19, all retailers will have to make their in-store experiences even more extraordinary for those who can visit in-person. They have to give people a reason to visit that is so compelling, it justifies their exposure to health risks and overcomes the inertia of behaviors they adopted during the shutdown,” suggested Yohn.
In addition, Richard Kestenbaum explored the in-store personnel issue on Forbes.com. “One thing every expert I spoke to agrees on is that retail store labor costs will go up. Part of that is increasing wage rates, but that’s only part of the story. In order to service customers who know they don’t have to come to stores anymore, it’s going to take more skilled personnel than it did pre-pandemic.”
Deborah Weinswig, CEO of Coresight Research, remarked that the store associate job is increasing in importance; subsequently, it’s turning into a career, not just a job. She also said the store manager job will be redefined. “In the past, it was all about sales per square foot. But in the future, managers and associates will need to reduce returns by making sure customers’ questions are answered and giving customers a more localized and memorable experience, however that translates to individual stores.”
Elevate Retail Staff
Some suggestions include elevating in-person customer service as a way to win over online players. And, of course, our industry is in a perfect position to do that with our customer relationships and product expertise. Bringing a renewed focus to your in-store personnel as true experts can help drive people in to see them.
Give them their own social media platforms. Have them display their own photography, or give them their own area of expertise, like landscape or portrait photography. Let your in-store personnel specialize. “He’s our lens expert.” Or “No one knows lighting more than her.” Amazon just can’t do that.
Also, retailers must think differently about service. They can no longer define it as a support for sales or limit service to generic efforts such as handling complaints and managing returns. There is no one better at customer service than Amazon. They realize that the easier it is to do business with them, the more people are likely to hit the Amazon icon on their phone rather than walk into a store.
Many are also buying online or at Amazon because of the easy return policies. There is simply no risk when buying there, because returns are automatic and free. So we have to reexamine our ease-of-return policies. It’s part of the reeducation of the consumer.
Reimage the Retail Store
In summary, retail will never be the same. What’s more, with such a high satisfaction rate among online shoppers, there are two things that can be done. One is to make your online experience an important part of your retail strategy. You should not think of it as a necessary evil. Rather, position it as a critical part of your retail strategy. Having an extraordinary e-commerce engine as well as a complementary retail element is something pure online e-commerce sites just can’t manage.
And it’s time to reimagine your retail stores and reinvent your retail experience. Throw new ideas against the wall with your employees and see what sticks. Think about what might bring in new, younger customers beyond your current offerings. Entertainment? Put a musician together with a photographer and see what they can do. Offer Zoom photography classes. Bring in guest speakers who have nothing to do with photography but everything to do with improving your local market. Think of what would make your store a local destination.
According to Kestenbaum, the future has to surprise people. “With so much shifting online being accelerated by the pandemic, stores have to be different and unique to attract customers. The formulaic store is what consumers don’t want; rather they need surprise and discovery to get motivated. If a store has what others have, there’s no reason for consumers to come in. That makes retailing harder and more complicated than ever; it also calls for more creativity which inevitably brings more risk to the business.”
In short, 2021 is calling on retailers to develop and build new skills to plan stores that give consumers what they can’t get anywhere else.