It’s time to rethink retail for the ‘roaring 20s’

—The shift to digital commerce means that brands should think of brick-and-mortar retail as a giant playground for consumers to interact with their product, says Fuse Create’s Aleena Mazhar—

By now most of us will have read the many stories and seen the data about how the pandemic has accelerated—maybe by years—the consumer shift to online shopping.

On one hand, this change in behaviour creates great opportunity for convenience, customization and efficiency for retailers. But on the other, it reduces the opportunity for brands to make real-life connections with their shoppers. Online shopping lacks the feeling of “finding new and hidden gems” within the physical shopping experience.

But if we accept that consumer habits are changed forever, then brands need to embrace a similar transformation in how they connect with shoppers in physical environments. Retail does not have to be rows of shelves with your product sitting amongst the competition. And it doesn’t have to be controlled only by a retail company that will always be focusing on its own brands first.

Let’s reframe that relationship as just one distribution channel, and not the distribution channel. Instead, brands should think of retail as a giant playground for consumers to interact with their product, with most of the stock in the back rooms.

By eliminating their reliance on retailers, companies can regain control of how their brands are experienced by consumers, creating new moments of discovery. They can use their own channels to reach consumers in innovative ways, and how they want and need.

What they need is to see how the product belongs in their daily life. The shift to digital commerce means a re-think of how to get closer to the consumer through experiences that are contextual and provide the answer to “What’s in it for me?” These brand experiences can create emotional connections and capture attention when every moment could be a shoppable one.

We’re seeing this in the way brands are redefining their physical experience. Take Nike, a leader in ecommerce, which is re-imagining its retail environment to drive DTC sales. Its stores are now community hubs, houses of innovation, and showrooms for new launches. Do you see rows of Nike shoes on shelves? No!

It’s a centre for learning, and that’s the key factor marketers need to understand. Their physical experience connects directly to social, email, influencer and experiential marketing, creating a seamless “buy anywhere” experience that emotionally connects with their audience.

Old Spice is taking an approach P&G calls “constructive disruption” by opening a physical barbershop that will become an experience centre as well as a content studio—again seamlessly integrating its digital and physical channels. This environment becomes a testing ground for the brand, allowing it to play with storytelling and experiential moments that create deeper connections with a millennial audience.

Another amazing example is the Toronto pizza brand General Assembly. Once a cult pizzeria with a foodie-millennial audience, the brand took advantage of the COVID shut down to create a “pizza subscription box.”

This has completely changed the brand’s business model, and it recently expanded distribution into premium grocery stores. The subscription business has grown to 2,000 people, accounting for 50% of sales, with a goal of expanding to 10,000 subscribers by the end of 2021. Leaning into disruption and new behaviour is a huge opportunity for marketers, and this is a great example.

Some have predicted another “roaring 20s” as people will be excited to spend money, travel, and live life to the fullest once the pandemic is behind us.

But spending doesn’t necessarily mean spending with reckless abandon. According to a recent consumer insights survey surrounding home renovations, 88% of shoppers will conduct research on the products they need, suggesting their home improvement purchases will not be impulse buys.

Marketers need to invest in amazing experience-driven marketing where people can visualize the products they may need, test them out in their own home (a rent-as-you-need based toolbox customized for a project), and use digital floor plans and augmented reality to play with how it comes to life. While it may seem expensive now, the return should be extraordinary.

The entire modern retail marketing framework before the pandemic was built on what our retail partners would allow. How about we turn that on its head? Start with what the consumer wants (not what the retailer will allow) and bring it to life in a way that gets our brands into their hands.

Let’s do this by creating new ways for people to experience and buy our brands. New approaches to content and media have spawned a long list of direct-to-consumer brands, and demonstrate that the business case exists. It’s worth trying something new and not waiting for things to go back to how they once were. Those days are long gone.

Undoubtably, this will require a philosophical shift; for P&G “constructive disruption” means trying, testing, and innovating as customer behaviour continues to evolve.

We need to reimagine the role of traditional retail and reduce our reliance on the way it once was. This could be a fundamental change to how brands operate their business. But as we’ve seen this year with store closures continuing, this shift could be life or death for some organizations.

The time is now for brands to lean in, innovate, experiment, and evolve.

Aleena Mazhar is partner, VP, managing director with Fuse Create in Toronto.