I was recently at a retail conference in London, and like many of us I suspect, it was the first ‘face to face’ event I had attended for the best part of two years. Simultaneously a slightly surreal yet uplifting experience.
But more than that, it was a couple of speakers that caught my attention and got me thinking that retail can learn an awful lot by more lateral thinking and from casting an occasional eye in more unconventional directions.
The first was someone who works in the space industry, claiming that retail can learn a lot from space, which I admit I struggled with until she explained it.
Because the space industry is big into big data. Very big. And with 300 billion stars in our universe and 100 billion universes out there, her point was well made. She called for a collaboration with retail, and I wondered if anyone would be brave enough to take her up on it.
The second explained why Kellogg’s, the makers of Pringles snacks, thought that a collaboration and subsequent campaign on Twitch would be a good idea. Because of gamers like Pringles. Why? Because they don’t leave a greasy residue on your fingers—ideal when you’re sitting for hours on end at a gaming console.
For years before any of us had learned how to pronounce epidemiologist let alone know what it meant, we had been talking in slightly hushed tones of digital transformation revolutionizing retail.
‘Retail Reimagined’, ‘Retail Rethought’, ‘Retail Reengineered’, and just about every other tagline you could think of.
But now, I sense that there’s a new urgency within retail to digitize just about anything that moves.
And that has to be good news for an industry that, for too long, convinced itself that it was innovative without even breaking a sweat.
A case in point: supermarkets.
Grocery shopping must be one of the least favorable chores we look forward to. Just think about the model for a moment because it’s largely unchanged since Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis in 1916.
We don’t work at a supermarket, but we’re expected to do the bulk of the work involved. And of course, with the introduction of self-service checkouts, we’re required to do even more.
But more than that, other than loyalty cards, which of course are for the benefit of the grocer rather than the customer, when we enter a supermarket, we’re just an anonymous shopper. We could be their best customer or perhaps never shopped there before, the grocer would have no idea.
Contrast that with the airline or the hotel industry where not only do they know who we are, they acknowledge us and reward our loyalty. It’s that extra little bit of recognition that gives us a lift and a positive feeling about the brand.
VIP or first class checkouts at the supermarket? And why not throw in a little clienteling whilst they’re at it?
In his wonderful book, ‘Best Served Cold: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Malcolm Walker, CEO of Iceland Foods, he describes how in the early days of home delivery he fought tooth and nail with the Board to convince them to agree to free home delivery for any purchase over £25.
Instinctively, he knew that it was the right thing to do for his customers. And he won that particular battle.
The good news is that the signs now are that retail, stung into action by the pandemic, is finally waking up to the need for real change.
Situ Live recently opened in London’s Westfield shopping centre, the largest in Europe, with a completely new retail model. Brands pay a monthly subscription to have their products displayed in ‘theatres’, acted out by Situ Live ‘presenters’.
The products sell themselves via storytelling. It’s not your traditional transactional sell but a more subtle, experience-led approach.
But perhaps the real innovation area in retail is only just beginning—and it takes us back to those gamers first mentioned at the top of this.
Retail is realizing that it can learn an awful lot, not simply by persuading them that their snack of choice should be Pringles, but by the monetization and power of digital tokens, NFTs and the Metaverse.
Because more and more, we want to look good in our virtual world. So digital fashion, which doesn’t exist in the real world, is rapidly gaining traction. Augmented and virtual reality, along with blockchain, are enabling a revolution that will soon render the likes of Instagram and Tik Tok obsolete.
The irony is that at a time when we are hailing the future of the physical store, the rise of the Metaverse is meaning that for many, their digital self will become as, if not more important, than their real self. And retail would do well to take note.
After all, gamers have known this for years.