With more than 30 years of commercial retail and CX experience, and 15 years in global retail trend analysis, this fully-fledged Kiwi, Aussie-born Managing Director shares insight into how she’s helping brands become more customer centric in today’s hyper-competitive environment.
On learnings from lockdown in retail marketing
The lockdown, in hindsight was incredibly fascinating. To live in, it was terribly confusing. For the first time in my lifetime, there was no rulebook on what to do or what not to do. The first thing that was evident is that we realised we are all human beings and that meant every single one of us were feeling lots of different things – frustration, anger, confusion, despair, vulnerability, isolation. The list was endless, but we were all in it together. As a retail marketer, that was incredibly challenging and a unique opportunity to step away from the traditional focus retailers put on product and price.
This was a special moment where we could use our marketing for good by engaging our customers and connecting with them emotionally, whether it was to bring them comfort and reassurance right through to commitment and honesty. It was a period where we discovered it was okay not to have the answer all the time, to recognise we do not have to be perfect, that we were all human, and most importantly, we had to communicate to stay relevant and on the radar.
From that came the avalanche. We saw digital marketing get a real profile at the board table, while concurrently traditional media shifted away from OOH to focus on TV and radio, communicating with a nostalgic comfort to people at home who were finding the digital verse was a cluster of too much activity. But this was a double-edge sword for retail marketers – could you communicate with any confidence that you could actually deliver on what you were promising.
With the rule book out the window, lockdown was an incredibly tough time for retail marketers. They were permanently riding by the seat of their pants wondering what tomorrow would bring and what tools would be at their disposal or taken away (“oh by the way there is no stock” or “we can’t pick, pack, and deliver for at least 10 days” or “we can’t actually trade as we have no team available”).
On retail recovery, and navigating current market challenges
Over the past 30 years I have seen a lot of change in the retail sector. From the introduction of POS systems replacing cash registers, the introduction of weekend shopping to 24/7 stores and self-checkout (now just walk-out), the introduction of ecommerce, C-stores, flagship stores, pop-up stores, loyalty programmes, apps, social commerce and the metaverse. Constant change.
While the pandemic (I hope) is a once in a lifetime phenomenon, retailers by their nature are, or should be, comfortable with change. Navigating change comes down to a few simple things – some are outside the control of marketing, and some are within their sphere of influence. (1) When times get tough the first thing that gets cut is research. But today there is no excuse to not understanding your customer even if it means you may not be able to do brand monitors or bespoke research. You have a wealth of data and insight within your organisation (data, conversations with suppliers, team members) and partners to help navigate. (2) You cannot sell fresh air so unless you have stock on shelves, in your warehouse or coming, you need to find different ways to stay relevant with customers while the supply chain issues are navigated. Frustrating but a reality. (3) Some businesses are going to find it incredibly tough to invest in keeping their websites and physical stores fresh and up to date. Again, a reality as retail is for many a cashflow driven business. Take a deep breath and recalibrate. Get networking if for nothing more than having a self-help group or to see how others might be tackling similar issues.
On connecting with customers amidst these challenges
There are many tools at a marketer’s disposal to engage customers. Sometimes too many. That is the beauty of retail marketing is finding the most effective and efficient ways to connect with your customer. If your offer is compelling, relevant, and engaging you can do anything. One would hope you know who your customers are (at least a little bit). If not, this is the time to get to know them and collect their information. We all know the cost differences between acquisition and retention. It is a no-brainer.
Customers are seeking comfort and reassurance from brands that give them stability and confidence in uncertain times. What is important to them? In challenging times, this is an opportunity to really let your personality shine with authentic and honest communication. Heck, how many fashion designers have done well by limiting their stock or doing pre-orders? A win-win all round. And how do we feel, knowing that we kept a Kiwi in business and our clothes were made right here in our own backyard? That handwritten note that says thank you. All different ways to build a relationship and confidence with the customer.
Retail marketing is unique in that there are a few different layers at play at any time. Different types of storytelling play out, predominantly brand and transactional storytelling. There are times to talk about the unique proposition you bring and sometimes it’s just about the item, price, features, and benefits. There is a wonderful tension between the rational, functional and emotional drivers to be successful in retail marketing and at the heart is customer-centricity. Whether in good times or bad, having the customer at the centre of your strategy is the only way to win.
On an omnichannel approach and its benefits
I get frustrated when we talk about omnichannel. It’s a “no-shit Sherlock” that you must be accessible to your customers if you want to optimise sales opportunities and make a profit. Commercially we know of it as a channel, but do you think for a moment a customer thinks “what channel shall I shop today?” It’s just Total Retail. Being available where the shopper wants to shop. I get my flea, tick and worm tablets for the dog delivered on repeat order every month, so I don’t forget. I go to a store to buy a new jacket to see how it feels and fits. I buy multiple sizes of swimmers online to try in the comfort of my own home to return. I click and collect my groceries, so they stay chilled until I know I am going to be driving home. Constant shopping in many ways. The benefits to selling in multiple touchpoints means you can connect with the need of the customer at the point in time. In 2022, I can’t think of any business that should not have a presence online, even if it is just to share your phone number. Multiple touchpoints mean multiple opportunities to convert. Just pick the ones you need to be great at.
On navigating MarTech in a bid for seamless CX
There is a huge push around the role and investment in MarTech to deliver a seamless customer experience (CX). MarTech is only an enabler, not the answer. CX refers to the interactions customers have with your brand and how they feel as a result. The customer experience shapes the overall perception of your brand and how satisfied customers are in all their interactions with you. This includes the store, website, social media, app, in-person events and other channels.
Unless there is clarity on the core attributes that influence a customer impression of your brand, the customer experience may not be delivered in a way that positively influences them to choose to shop or spend time with you. More often than not the core attributes which most influence this are queues and long wait times, rude or unhelpful staff, missing or wrong products, not enough information, or misinformation about a product, slow or unresponsive technology, irrelevant search results or recommendations, service issues or customer support. Basically, anything that causes a bump in the customer journey. So, unless you have the above as a priority, no MarTech solution in the world is going to improve your NPS (Net Promoter Score) or sales.
The biggest trends emerging in retail marketing will include a focus on our team members. There are so many ways in which we can empower our teams whether they are in a store, a DC, contact centre etc, that means they can better serve the customer. From livestreaming instore, FaceTiming a customer to show them different products, and having content that gives staff the power in their hands (yes, their own phone) to help find product information, our teams are one of the best marketing tools that must be empowered. They see what people are browsing, returning, asking, and seeking. They are the front-line and are totally in-touch.
The biggest challenge for retail marketers after all this is said and done is finding focus. NFTs, the metaverse, VR/AR/MR – the list is endless. There are new and shiny ways to engage and convert. Customer-centricity is critical. Feeding your knowledge of the customer and the market with insights and keeping a nimble, open and agile perspective will allow you to align your precious resources and communication to the customer with clarity, intent, and purposeful outcomes.
This article was first published in the 2022 June/July issue of NZ Marketing magazine.