The tables have turned. Empowered by technology and each other, today’s consumers have declared, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Tumult has become a constant in our lives. Retail is dealing with the impact of everything from supply chain issues, to labour shortages and geopolitical uncertainty. Shoppers in the UK are beginning to react to rising inflation. For every business – large and small – taking control back in this environment means expecting, preparing for, and embracing disruption. For a consumer-facing industry such as retail, the most powerful way to preempt oncoming disruption is by listening to the all-powerful consumer and using that knowledge to put the right investment, resources, and energies into the right areas.
Retailers have talked about making changing consumer behaviour and insights a core capability that impacts decisions up and down the organisation for years. However, this has mostly been lip service and the urgent need to truly do so has never been higher. This is because consumers are no longer the reliable and static demographic clusters marketers have been used to. Instead, they are constantly regrouping and changing according to social trends, identity politics, personal whims, and even time of day, and because they have unlimited access to information and the ability to communicate with each other, they have both the power and agency to make choices.
Social platforms have given consumers megaphones, enabling them to discover new products, read and write peer reviews, identify with communities of shared interests, and buy only what aligns with their personal brand. They make choices about what they want to buy based on information from sources that transcend, and upend, traditional company marketing efforts. Consumers now operate outside of the carefully controlled customer experience zones where consumer companies have felt most comfortable for essentially all of time. The simplest way to think about this is the absolute democratisation of consumerism.
More than 80% of U.K. and U.S. customers trust recommendations from family and friends over those from companies, and two-thirds do not trust advertisements or sponsored social media advertisements.
This shift in power is monumental and irreversible. Never again will companies control the narrative or tell consumers what, when, and how to buy something.
Some companies have come to this realisation – the quick rise of direct-to-consumer businesses was one example where consumers controlled the relationship. But the solution isn’t hidden in one specific platform or technology, and this power shift cannot be attributed to e-commerce alone either. Too many retailers are operating under the false assumption that the difference is the ability to buy goods and services online. However, the key change has arisen through the power of information, with consumers using technology as research and connection tools before making their purchasing decisions.
Even when consumers are shopping in a physical store, they are likely to simultaneously use their phone for related actions – comparing prices, finding other colorways or sizes, and exploring similar products at competitors. Sephora has long been a leader in seamlessly connecting online experiences to in-store shopping, bringing a robust loyalty-driven personalised experience across all touchpoints – from in-app Live Beauty Chat, to skin tone matching AI technology and in-store AR experiences.
Retail CEOs realise the urgency of needing to make a change – but their understanding of what must change continues to come from what rivals are doing or what new technology is available. The 2022 AlixPartners Disruption Index finds that 96% of retail executives say their business models must change within the next three years. But their top concerns are focused on operations.
Consider this your wake-up call to the consumer revolution. Whilst coming to terms with the idea of losing power is difficult, retailers should realise that this is an opportunity to build an intimate and lasting relationship with their customer and grow in a sustainable manner. The question is, how do you begin to understand your customer?
There are six Cs that are the essential elements defining companies’ relationships with their customers: cost, convenience, category expertise, customisation, curation, and community. The six Cs distill the nature of a company’s relationship with their customer. By reviewing current attributes, competitive differentiation, and what their customer values most, companies can develop their own recipe with the right blend of Cs that are most relevant to their customers. This may involve deconstructing every aspect of operations, but there is a high value attached, as it will reveal the areas to focus investment, resources, and energies in order to maximise the customer relationships.
To build a long and lasting relationship, retailers must act now and fully understand how their organisation is seen through the lens of the customer, and prioritise this over all else.
Matt Clark is the head of EMEA retail, and Joel Bines is the global co-head of retail at consulting firm AlixPartners. Bines is also the author of The Metail Economy: 6 Strategies for Transforming Your Business to Thrive in the Me-Centric Consumer Revolution.
To find out more about AlixPartners and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.
This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.