Social media was just the start. Now it’s super-powered smartphones, mobile salespeople, digital influence, and, yes, good old-fashioned storytelling. Here’s a peek at what’s on the ever-evolving retail horizon.
Twenty years ago, few would have guessed just how markedly technology would change the retail landscape. Social media has replaced sale flyers, mobile point-of-sale systems are usurping the cash wrap, and e-commerce is rapidly relegating the role of sharp-suited salesman to sideman.
The good news is the more things change, the more they stay the same. Wade through the jungle of social media sites, iPad apps, and retail gadgetry and a simple truth remains: Coveted products, when coupled with savvy salesmanship and smart marketing, will always sell.
To arm you as you navigate this new frontier, we’ve made some educated predictions—with the help of a few experts—about what’s coming next in retail, from store design and inventory switch-ups to the latest in online and in-store technologies.
The Classic Brick-and-Mortar Jewelry Store Will Evolve
Notice a pattern? HoF’s Las Vegas outpost echoes the design of its Taiwanese location.
Shopping environments in other consumer categories have changed dramatically over the years. But the brick-and-mortar jewelry store, defined by glass cases and security detail, hasn’t progressed much in the past century—which makes luring stimuli-seeking customers into physical locations more of a challenge.
“The store is not going to look like the store as we know it four or five years from now,” predicts Piers Fawkes, editor-in-chief of PSFK.com, a creative think tank that publishes annual retail-industry reports. If everyone is shopping online, “retailers will have to decide what the use of their store is, what makes the in-store experience a preferred part of their journey.” Big box retailers already have started offering incentives for in-store shoppers. Target, for example, now stocks products in its stores that aren’t available anywhere else.
Experts agree that keeping your store vital in the digital retail age means implementing a business strategy that relies on in-store and online technologies working in tandem with one another.
Leaning over a case is so five minutes ago. Behold: the wall-mounted jewel box.
Diamond brand Hearts On Fire debuted new concept stores this year in Taiwan and Las Vegas that reinvent the glass-case mode of selling jewelry with wall-mounted “jewel boxes” that employees and shoppers experience side by side—not across a counter from each other. The stores also feature a touch-screen “knowledge wall” that allows consumers to read about the company, plus a virtual catalog that sends items of their choosing to a virtual jewelry tray, which a staffer then delivers to a desk for try-ons.
The millennial generation has proved they like to shop with mobile devices in hand and without sales staff hovering nearby. And other consumer categories are tailoring their in-store experience to reflect this. Clinique recently debuted a concept for its cosmetics displays that encourages customers to help themselves to products stashed in drawers—similar to the open-sell environment at beauty megastore Sephora.
Jewelry Prototypes Will Replace Live Jewelry With the Help of Technology
You can’t touch this! Oh wait—you can: The Knowledge Wall boasts touch-screen technology and a virtual catalog.
Of course, the security issues inherent to fine jewelry make it next to impossible to let customers fondle the merchandise without a staff member present, and the restriction has defined the way jewelry has been sold for decades.
But Shawn Montgomery, executive director of business development for jewelry and equipment manufacturer Stuller, says the burgeoning acceptance of prototypes—particularly in the bridal category—is set to transform the jewelry retail paradigm. (In fact, JCK named prototypes one of the “10 Things Retailers Need to Know” in our December 2010–January 2011 issue.)
Prototypes not only give jewelers the freedom to step away from browsing customers, but when widely used in a store, also can increase the rate of inventory turnover. “You’re collecting the money before you’ve even ordered the inventory,” says Montgomery. “Our industry is accepting the use of prototypes in a more prevalent way than ever. Five years ago, maybe one out of every 25 retailers used them. Now it’s more like 13 out of 20. Retailers are understanding that you can’t stock a million dollars’ worth of business to sell a million dollars’ worth of business.”
This $3,500 bridal prototype system by Stuller—which features flexible magnetic displays and customizable signage areas—holds 40 engagement rings and 33 bands.
The trend of putting CAD software in full view—not squirreling it away in a backroom—is adding to prototypes’ appeal, says Montgomery, because alterations to an existing ring can be rendered photo-realistically in seconds: “The independent jeweler can make that customer feel confident with the software. It’s not ‘Let me draw you a picture of what it will look like.’ It’s ‘Here’s exactly what it will look like.’?”
The good news is that just about every major jewelry manufacturer makes prototypes of its collections. And the faux baubles can help jewelers decide on what live items to purchase, cutting down on the guesswork of buying.
The increased use of prototypes also means that salespeople can loosen up and allow clients to indulge themselves in self-help sections, assured in the knowledge that a $5,000 ring isn’t going to walk out the door.
Stuller process improvement coordinator Troy Douet reviews the CAD files to guard against production errors.
“Jewelry is sold in the direct opposite way women buy most products,” says Jerry Moore, retail expert and managing partner of advertising firm US+Partners, which encourages jewelers to strip down their stock to the most quintessential pieces and embrace CZ replicas for high-ticket diamond pieces. Because, ultimately, “putting up a wall between you and customer is not modern retailing.”
Shoppers Will Rely (Even More) Heavily on Mobile Devices
Consumers already use their mobile phones and devices to find the best deals on merchandise when inside stores—a practice known as showrooming. And what 22-year-old doesn’t tweet and email product photos to friends for second, third, and even fourth opinions?
PSFK.com claims that 50 percent of smartphone owners use their mobile devices when shopping. And a Pew Research Center study found that during the 2011 holiday shopping season, 25 percent of 900 smartphone owners polled used their phones to comparison shop while cruising retail spots, while 38 percent used them to call a friend to consult on a purchase.
Once files get the go-ahead, CAM Services uses a UV laser–equipped machine to build the 3-D jewelry models.
In response, nearly every major retailer, from Target to the Gap, has rolled out a mobile app tailored for on-the-go shoppers. Some are merely rehashed company websites in mobile form. But the next-generation apps link the shopper to the store location in meaningful ways—a trend that’s gaining steam as shopping experiences rapidly become as important as the merchandise mix itself.
Tiffany & Co.’s Engagement Ring app allows potential buyers to browse styles, view carat weights, and determine ring size before ever stepping foot inside a Tiffany boutique. And in March, Neiman Marcus debuted its NM iPhone app, which allows customers to see which sales associates are in-store at any given time; message and make appointments with them; keep up with store events; and mark favorite products, which an associate can pull in their size in advance of a store visit.
“It’s going to be about tapping into the needs of customers,” says Scott Lachut, director of consulting for PSFK.com. “There’s nothing worse than going to a location with one specific item you’re looking for, only to find out they’ve sold out of it. That can impact your desire to ever go back there. When you’re operating multiple [digital] channels, you need to be able to seize the opportunities.”
Retailers and consumers also are warming to quick response codes, which work like a UPC bar code that shoppers can scan on their smartphones. Macy’s and Home Depot are among the retailers tagging product with QR codes, which take consumers to pages filled with product info, games, slide shows, and other engaging content.
Sales Associates Will Become More Mobile
Mobile-based POS devices, like the ones Apple and Home Depot employees mosey around with, will become more ubiquitous in the retail environment, further breaking down the wall between consumer and salesperson.
Digital giants such as Microsoft and Apple supply mobile checkout systems for big box retailers. But companies such as Square and PayAnywhere—which offer credit card processors that hook onto smartphones and iPads—also are making this mode of checkout affordable for small, independent retailers.
NFC tags, which are similar to QR codes, have been popping up at retail as well. The technology, which allows NFC-enabled electronic devices (phones, iPads, etc.) to pass payment information remotely to and from each other, will be installed in more than 50 percent of mobile phones by 2015. Feeding parking meters and buying lunch via NFC technology has been a way of life in tech-savvy European countries for years.
As a result of mobile technology, sales staffers will be linked to inventory and other stores more than ever. Associates at Burberry in China, for example, can instantly access the brand’s online inventory, ordering items that aren’t physically in stores.
Everyone’s Digital Influence Will Be Measured
You may not know it, but you already have a Klout score. The online service, which purports to measure people’s social influence in the digital sphere, gives everyone with a Twitter account a ranking between 1 and 100, depending on how many people they reach and how influential those connections are. Its algorithms comb through social media data and let others know how deep your digital tentacles reach.
The service is controversial, with critics claiming the company doesn’t measure influence in a scientific, meaningful way. (Scores are calculated using a host of variables, including following, frequency of updates, number of likes/dislikes, your followers’ scores, and shares of social media posts.) But Klout—and similar sites such as PeerIndex and Kred—is being taken seriously by many, in part because there are no other modes of gauging social reach so far.
Those with high Klout scores are rewarded with Klout perks—for example, laptops and airline tickets for the site’s top scorers—and often are courted by major corporations. Proponents of the service and its peers say it could lead companies to social media superstars who could potentially boost sales.
“It’s less important for a retailer to consider what their metric is, but it’s important that they understand who their audience is and are engaging them in a way that’s going to be useful,” says Lachut. “The reality of a small business is that you don’t necessarily have a lot of time to spend on social media. But at the same time, there are opportunities to take advantage of platforms and use them as a way to inform your audience and begin to form those relationships that will be useful to your business.”
Social media consultant Brian Carter is less than enthusiastic about a service that values re-tweets over real-world characteristics. Plus, he says, “Klout is very controversial because people who are high influencers are not easily influenced by others, and people of medium influence are actually more likely to pass on ideas. It’s possible that it doesn’t make sense socially. It’s a weird phenomenon—where you’re letting people drive your new Ford model and blogging about it. I haven’t seen proof that it works. And the people being courted”—i.e., those with super-high Klout scores—“are not always the easiest people to deal with.”
Either way, staying socially active (in the digital sense), and keeping your eye on your most influential clients can only help your business.
Social Media Will Become More Targeted
Posting about products on Twitter or Facebook every day can lull retailers into believing they are active on the social media front, but “putting a photo of a piece of jewelry on Facebook is not social media,” asserts Moore. “It’s a waste of time. It’s forcing out information—that’s not engagement. Engagement is a two-way conversation.”
How to develop real relationships in the virtual world? Experts suggest cultivating brand advocates: true-blue fans of your business who can be influential with their relationships on your behalf.
Curating content on your website and social media pages is another way to engage clients. In April, Pepsi launched Pepsi Pulse, an online pop culture cheat sheet peppered with fan tweets and photos, original content, and aggregated articles from like-minded blogs and publications.
And, thankfully, social media sites themselves are offering more ways to target demographics and increase sales. LinkedIn recently added the ability to direct advertising posts at specific groups of followers. Fancy (thefancy.com), a site that echoes Pinterest’s mood board “pinning” practice, introduced the ability to buy goods through the site, when users could formerly only “fancy” them. Predictably, the company recently rolled out an accompanying e-commerce iPhone app.
Storytelling Will Be an Essential Selling Tool
With virtually every product in the world available online, retailers with a strong brand philosophy or mission will have a better chance of distinguishing themselves from the pack.
“You have to understand who you are, and that begins with your philosophy,” says Lachut. “What are you telling your staff? What is the experience for customers when they walk through the door? Nailing that from the get-go will be important. With all the choices available, your story is going to be the thing that makes you stand out in the end.”