Many commentators predicted that the advent of online shopping would spell the demise of the bricks-and-mortar store.
However, physical shops are still very much alive, though the rise of e-commerce has forced them to re-think their approach.
Over the next few years, the role of the retail store is likely to be redefined, improving the way they work through the application of new technologies.
Between the growth of online shopping, the appearance of futuristic stores without sales assistants, such as Amazon Go, and the introduction of robots, it’s clear that the retail business is in a radical transition phase right now. And over the next few years there is little doubt that the shop as we know it is set to undergo a profound transformation. However, if you want to predict what’s coming in the future it’s often useful to take a look into the past.
The retail business has seen three major innovations in recent years. The expansion of the drive-through phenomenon, which originated with fast food outlets in the United States some 50 years ago, to grocery stores, saw the foundation in France over a decade ago of the pioneering Chronodrive, which enables customers to order online and then drive to the store to have their groceries packed in the car boot while they remain at the wheel. Meanwhile back in the US, Amazon set up two Amazon Fresh Pickup grocery outlets this year, with retail giant Walmart following suit in Oklahoma City. The second phenomenon has been the come-back, in opposition to the hypermarkets and ‘shopping malls’, staged by local shops where customers can make their purchases without having to take their car along and then search between endless rows of shelves. The third revolution has been the rise of online shopping, which began in the apparel and electric appliances segments but has since spread to groceries and fast-moving consumer products, as illustrated by the Amazon Fresh concept.
Re-thinking the role of the bricks-and-mortar store
Matthieu Jolly, Service & Innovation Manager at the Echangeur, an Innovation meeting-point run by BNP Paribas Personal Finance, underlines that this triple revolution has been driven by the retailers’ desire to adapt to the changing expectations of their customers, notably for greater efficiency. “The customer wants to save time,” he points out, adding: “However, this new reality raises a fundamental question: if nowadays the customer wants to spend as little time as possible inside shops, what are the shops going to do about it?” Does that mean they’ll simply disappear? Jolly argues instead that sales outlets will have to introduce new formats and take an approach that goes beyond the purely utilitarian, with three main areas for improvement. “The first is about turning the shop into a venue for new experiences, a place where you can be amazed, where you can have a good time,” he says. This might well mean giving customers greater freedom. For instance, the Nike store in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York City offers customers the chance to try out its gear in realistic situations, shooting a few basketball hoops or going into a full sprint. Similarly, US store Pitch, which specialises in luxury furniture and appliances, everything in the shop can be tested out – for example taking a shower or drying your hair on the premises.
Another option involves using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. Given that the cost of these technologies is still rather high for the general public, brands will be able to vaunt their dramatic effect, offering customers a truly immersive experience. For instance, during a promotional campaign in Autumn 2015, The North Face store in Seoul, South Korea rolled out an initiative whereby it invited customers to sit on a dog sled, put on an Oculus Rift headset and experience for a few moments the life of a ‘musher’, being pulled through a snowy landscape by huskies. In the meantime, a sales assistant attached real live huskies to the sled, and when the customer took off the headset the dogs took off on a real race through the store. Similarly, in November 2016, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba invited its customers to put on a VR headset and be teleported to Macy’s store in New York. This kind of dramatic spectacle gives stores a ‘raison d’être’, creating a meeting-point where you can have new, fun experiences. “We’re moving from a transactional mode to an approach based on experiences,” explains Nicolas Diacono, Digital Project Manager at the BNP Paribas Personal Finance Echangeur.
A place for interaction and socialising
The second area for improvement actually goes in the opposite direction, concentrating on what is unique about shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store – i.e. the material aspect, the customer’s ability to see and touch. “A store is also a place where you go to get hands-on contact with a product, to feel how it works,” Jolly underlines. He does not think that the general public has yet been entirely won over by e-commerce. Retail stores therefore still have a strong hand to play if they focus on their specific features. The recently-announced partnership between US startup Casper and nationwide discount retailer Target is a telling move. The hypermarket chain has invested $75 million in Casper, a high-end, exclusively online, direct-to-consumer mattress business. As a result of Target’s financial injection, Casper’s mattresses can now also be bought at Target hypermarkets. Despite enjoying fast growth, Casper has struggled to attract buyers beyond a rather select circle of people who are happy to buy expensive items online without first trying them out. Partnering with Target opens the door to a wider potential clientele, while Target benefits from having attractive products at its premises. Customers like to try them out in-store, and they now have a reason to go to the Target store to do so. Similarly, French home appliance and multi-media store Boulanger is setting up areas within its stores where customers can try out all its products.
The third area for development is turning the store into a place for interaction and socialising. “Many people go shopping as a way of getting out of the house. Shopping malls in the United States are now widely used as a place where young people can meet up,” points out Matthieu Jolly. Amazon showed that it has fully understood this phenomenon when it acquired natural and organic food company Whole Foods Market, a brand known for its community feel and its pleasant stores where people enjoy walking around, up and down the aisles.
“However, making customers feel welcome isn’t enough, you also have to teach them something", argues Jolly. Carrefour’s store in Villiers en Bière, in the Greater Paris region, now offers classes in cooking, wine-making and make-up.
Meanwhile French postal service La Poste provides premises for would-be drivers to take the written part of their driving test, and other companies are setting up co-working facilities.
The Virgin Megastore in London has combined these three trends. Customers are hailed in the street by a hologram of Richard Branson, and then welcomed inside the stores by hostesses. They can then go downstairs where they’ll find a bar, a café, a piano, a relaxing space with armchairs, TV screens, and even a real-life Virgin Atlantic business premium cabin where they can watch the sky go by through the porthole windows. Children can play on the consoles at the video games space. You can even rent part of the premises for events, and every Friday evening a film is screened.
More efficient, better-managed stores
The store of the future will therefore play a different role from the one we know today and will moreover provide customers with a more efficient shopping experience. In the medium term, there will no doubt be many AR-based experiences on offer. Using a future version of Google Glass or the Oculus headset, tomorrow’s consumers will be able to navigate around the supermarket aisles and see the products they are interested in highlighted in front of them. These might be food items corresponding to a diet – vegetarian, gluten-free, stone-age diet, and so on – or the products they need for a cooking recipe, suggested by their personalised virtual assistant, depending on what they already have in their connected refrigerator. Also highlighted might be the wines that go well with the dish a customer intends to cook. “We’re entering the era of ambient shopping, where everything will be interactive,” predicts Nicolas Diacono, who sees the advent of this technology in ten to fifteen years’ time.
Yet another area for potential improvement is the checkout process. “The checkout queue remains today the least enjoyable part of the in-store experience. Streamlining this process, reinventing the payment procedure, will be one of the most important innovations,” stresses Nicolas Diacono. This means allowing customers to leave the shop without first having to go through the checkout. The items in their trolley would be recognised and tallied up on the customer’s smartphone app. Says Diacono: “This is for instance what Amazon is aiming for with Amazon Go, but the technology isn’t yet sufficiently mature. The costs are still too significant for this to be a profitable approach for a shop.” So the right system still needs to be developed. Explains Matthieu Jolly: “There already exists a technology that enables a retailer to automatically recognise the items in your basket when you pass the checkout – RFID, which is used by for example Nespresso. So it’s technically feasible to scan your selected articles, pay with your smartphone and leave the shop. However, for this to work, all the products on sale would need to be fitted with an RFID chip, which is still far too expensive for all the items purchased at a grocery outlet.”
Lastly, the store of the future will be optimally organised through the use of advanced technologies. It will be equipped with robots set up to answer basic questions – this is what Pepper does already – or to direct customers to the products they are looking for, while human sales assistants focus on giving more sophisticated advice and on building the customer relationship. Robots will also no doubt have a role to play at the store’s warehouses. Supplying and restocking will be made easier through the use of AI and image recognition technology. As they move along the shelves, robots will be able to scan products and identify those that are out of stock, a task that could equally be carried out by connected trolleys equipped with cameras. Overall, sophisticated data management will enable retailers to get a better grip on what lies ahead. Nicolas Diacono foresees: “The store will be optimised by drawing on a threefold data input based on the customer’s needs, the environment – i.e. the weather, events that are taking place in the town, etc. – and the store itself. They will thus be able to make more accurate stock forecasts, taking into consideration seasonal factors, and will therefore be more efficient at restocking. A Decathlon store would for example be able to predict three or four days in advance how many bicycles it will sell during the coming weekend.”. So at the end of the day, this well-established social institution that we know as a ‘retail store’ still appears to have a bright future.
E-commerce and m-commerce: a smoother system ahead
Even though there is significant interest in e-commerce and m-commerce, making payments is often perceived as cumbersome or as insecure.
E-commerce considerably increases ease of use. You can calmly consult information about services (training, holiday camp for children, etc.) and then pay for them straight away. The trend shows no signs of stopping, yet Belgium is not leading the way here. In our country, for example, only 2-3% of the total retail turnover is made with electronic sales. The figure in our neighbouring countries is already 8-9%. Gunter Uytterhoeven (Head of Marketing BNP Paribas Fortis):
“One of the reasons for lagging behind is that Belgium still does not have a good payment solution for electronic transactions. Many people perceive online payments to be complex, cumbersome and not adequately secure. Almost one-quarter of all transactions are interrupted at the time payment must be made.”
The most common way of online payment is the credit card, which is being used increasingly with the card reader and PIN. The payment requires several actions. A system that is making considerable progress is the virtual wallet or e-wallet. The customer opens a wallet on a website to which an amount can be transferred or on which payment is made by credit card. The advantage is that you do not have to release any personal details on the internet. The disadvantage is that you can only use this system in affiliated web shops. A well-known example is PayPal. The customer only needs to provide his bank account or credit card details once and can pay after that with an e-mail address and password. This also requires a number of actions that can form an obstacle for many e-shoppers.
M-commerce (buying and paying via mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets) is still in its infancy. Apps are very popular, but they are not yet used very frequently for mobile trade. Paying in the app often does not work, merchants have problems identifying customers, and there are still doubts about security and privacy.
However, there is a solution in sight to make both e-commerce and m-commerce work more smoothly and securely. BNP Paribas Fortis is currently working on a new system together with other Belgian banks and major telecom players: Sixdots.
Sixdots: smooth and secure online and mobile payments
Sixdots is a system designed to make both payment cards and card readers superfluous. These are to be replaced by a secret code that is typed into the smartphone. Online mobile payments will be smooth and secure. The system is aimed at the Belgian market and will be launched in 2015.
- Sixdots refers to the six-figure PIN, which together with several other elements is designed to ensure the security of the system. Sixdots will be an open platform that is accessible for all organisations/companies and their customers/consumers: the app can be used by anyone with a smartphone, a payment card at a Belgian bank and a mobile data subscription with a Belgian telecom operator.
- Sixdots offers attractive benefits to vendors, both for e-commerce and ‘in-app’ commerce. Sixdots can be seamlessly integrated into the organisation's own app. You pay a small fee for each transaction.
- Using Sixdots is free and convenient for the payer. Payers no longer have to leave behind their card details during the payment process and the card reader also becomes superfluous. All that they need to pay for goods or services is a smartphone.
Gunter Uytterhoeven: “For commercial organisations, more is possible than just shopping and paying. The entire retail process can be combined in Sixdots, including loyalty cards and discount vouchers. Discount vouchers would then automatically appear on customers' smartphones, for example, when they are at the shop rack height of the relevant product. The till will also recognise the customer's smartphone and automatically deduct the discount vouchers from the bill. The current buzz word for this in the retail world is ‘fidgetal’, the combination of finger and digital. The aim of this is the convergence of the physical and e-commerce world, using the smartphone as the ideal binding agent. These types of applications will also prove their usefulness in the public and social profit sectors.”
Do not miss the e-commerce boat!
Belgium is rarely ever first in embracing new technologies and their commercial possibilities. The country is not exactly a pioneer in e-commerce either. Unfortunate? It is!
First of all, it is a missed commercial opportunity. What is more, Belgian businesses are at risk of falling so far behind that it will become difficult to catch up. Compared to foreign web stores, the Belgian players are small: the large online stores are usually in foreign hands. The web store names may end in ".be", but behind the scenes you will find companies based in Belgium's neighbouring countries, the UK or the US.
According to the retail federation Comeos, this is partly because Belgian e-commerce is battling foreign dominance with unequal arms. Labour costs and VAT rates are higher here, for example.
Comeos also predicts that sales in e-shops are about to grow considerably further still, but that this growth will occur mostly outside Belgium. Some figures: in 2018 online trading will be about 10% of total turnover, compared to 5.6% today. From that online turnover, foreign e-shops currently account for 37%. In 2018 this will rise to almost 69%.
Shopping without borders
Until now it has mainly been the European and US web shops doing well. If the Chinese web shops become equally popular, Comeos fears the trend will become unstoppable. The market will be flooded with extremely cheap gadgets and electronics at bargain prices. Fakes? Perhaps. With a guarantee? Who knows. The fact is that Belgian and European web shops are already becoming nervous.
"This is not without reason," according to Benny Sintobin, who has been running his own web shop for twelve years. His company Frucon² also designs and manages online sales channels for other companies. “E-commerce is global and super local at the same time. Global, because the competition is becoming worldwide. A young man from a small village in Belgium can see a longboard by a graffiti artist in California and buy it online. Logistics models will further adjust to this globalised trade. The price war is also constantly intensifying. As a brand, you had better be ready to join this worldwide game.
Super local means that you can order a loaf, some milk and some cheese at midnight and have those products ready for you at your front door at half past six in the morning. Just like in the good old days when the milkman made home deliveries, only the note on the door for the milkman has now been replaced with an electronic order. Something like that can only be organised super locally."
Waiting is no longer an option
At the moment people are afraid of worldwide competition, but fear is a poor advisor of course. The market is gradually evolving towards more e-commerce. Nobody can stop this trend. In some sectors almost half the products are now sold online. Tourism is a classic example of a sector that has taken to the internet like a duck to water. Other sectors, like household appliances, have a more modest e-commerce share for now, but this can change quickly. Even products you may not expect to do well on the internet are being sold online more and more. Take the fashion sector, for example. Clothes involve pure emotions, and colour and fit are hugely important, and yet e-shops for clothes are doing extremely well.
Internet giant Google has even predicted that in time, 40% of B2C transactions will be online. An important part of this will involve reservations, where an order is prepared in store for collection by the consumer. Another part will be actual home delivery.
Companies have to keep up with this trend, and by that we do not just mean the multinationals. A sense of size and scale is necessary, though. According to Benny Sintobin, the calculation is a simple one:
"Imagine a company achieves a turnover of 10 million euros in a sector where 5% of sales are achieved in web shops. Let us say that the e-commerce potential of the entire sector is 10%. Then the company primarily has an e-commerce potential of 1 million euros. You also need to take into account that there will be a channel shift during the start-up phase, whether you like it or not: customers who are used to buying in an actual shop will now make some of their purchases online. It is swings and roundabouts... except if you can increase the online margin."
4 reasons why customers buy online
- 40% (!) because of the price
- 20% because of the convenience: choosing, ordering and delivery at home
- 20% because of its uniqueness: much wider choice, opportunity to personalise, etc.
- 20% because of the availability: all models, colours and sizes are (almost) always in stock
E-commerce: the 3 steps to success
Which stages should a company that is venturing into e-commerce go through? And how do you avoid customers and employees getting stressed and frustrated in the process?
Phase 1: managing the channel conflict
When a manufacturer, distributor or importer starts selling the products they previously only sold to shops online themselves, the shops may experience that as a channel conflict. Their supplier has now become a direct competitor benefiting from low start-up costs as well as more customer convenience. But does the supplier have a choice? If the supplier does not sell online, some customers will go to a seller who does. The solution? Benny Sintobin, Manager of e-commerce specialist Frucon²:
"The channel conflict is a perception debate that is more emotional than rational. E-commerce is unavoidable, so you had better adjust. The roughest edges of the channel conflict can be smoothed out by being a ‘friendly’ online store. With that I mean that you have to approach it correctly, with empathy for the party that may be at a disadvantage. You have to be bold enough to tell the customers of your distribution channel in advance what you are planning and which rules you are going to follow. If you start up everything on the quiet, you will cause frustration and negative emotions."
And these are totally unnecessary, because the new situation can be favourable to the distributor or shop as well. The distributor's online sales channel can also refer to his customer's website or shop, for example. Benny Sintobin:
"Take a bicycle manufacturer offering bicycles to customers online, for example. The website could allow consumers to combine certain materials and colours online in order to create a personalised model. The bicycle can be sent by courier, but can also be delivered to a retailer near the customer for the customer's collection. In that case the retailer will have to be satisfied with a smaller margin and the fact that he has gained a new customer, who will come back later to buy a helmet or a bicycle bag or to have his bicycle serviced. The other members of his family will follow his example for their bicycles and accessories. That way everyone wins."
Downward price spiral
When you say channel conflict, people almost automatically think about a price war between shops competing with online sales channels offering the same products at a lower price. According to Benny Sintobin it is therefore important to put a fair, correct price on the products:
"When manufacturers engage in e-commerce themselves, they set the product's retail price. The price is there online in black and white. In that case shops can rarely afford to charge a higher price. That is why the pricing must be correct, so that shops can still earn a living.
In practice a channel conflict often causes the reverse phenomenon: it is usually not the manufacturer, but the shops starting the downward price spiral. That is in fact the biggest threat to e-commerce: the shop trying to hurt the supplier. Major players striving towards market dominance can afford to destroy their profit margins. However, smaller manufacturers and brands cannot compete in such a price war. This proves once again the importance of making good e-commerce arrangements."
Phase 2: geographical expansion
Once the channel conflict has been well and truly digested, it is time for the next phase: tapping into new markets. For larger SMEs e-commerce is often a perfect way to gain more of a market share. For example, take a Belgian brand that achieved a nice market share in Belgium by selling in retail points as well as through its own online sales channel. Perhaps the brand has developed some brand awareness abroad through a couple of shops in the capital, for example. Benny Sintobin:
"In that case it is entirely possible that some consumers abroad know the brand already, but are unable to get to the shop because of the distance. It would be very unfortunate not to take control of that potential channel yourself and to leave it to Amazon, would it not? Online your products are available to all customers. Conclusion: expansion abroad with an e-commerce channel could be the first low-hanging fruit that is therefore easy to pick."
Phase 3: reinventing your business model
The third phase in e-commerce is a leap in the dark. Company thinking is traditionally product-, market- and wholesale-oriented. Take a company manufacturing or importing pots and pans, for example. That product is part of the world of cooking and dining, but still the sales strategy traditionally focuses completely on the product. However, the online activities offer opportunities to change tack and create an entire world around the particular product. You can work with other companies in that respect: a publisher to create content about dining, a candle manufacturer, a herbs specialist, a table linens manufacturer, a supermarket offering home delivery, etc. Benny Sintobin:
"Around Valentine's day or other key moments of the year you can create content and an entire world where those pots and pans belong. In that case what you sell online becomes more of an experience than a product. The effect is further strengthened if each of the partner companies present that experience on their sites as well. That way you enter each other's customer base and target groups. And you also immediately make sure that your social media really start to work for you. Consumers will tend to like a Valentine's experience more than just a set of pots and pans. In other words, you become a "love brand" rather than just an everyday product."
3 damaging e-commerce blunders
- You fail to inform the customers of your distribution channel of your e-commerce plans and you do not agree on clear rules. Clear arrangements make good business partners.
- You fail to gain sufficient support from all your company's employees. Non-believers and sceptics are best convinced with figures and orders. And you should make sure that dreamers keep both feet on the ground: Rome was not built in a day.
- You focus on bonus systems rewarding targets in a single sales channel. Commercial employees getting a little extra for the sales figures in actual shops are not happy with rising online sales figures, even though they benefit the entire company.
Social media and e-commerce: opportunities and risks
The huge popularity of social media brings new opportunities, but has resulted in some new stumbling blocks as well. What are the most recent trends? And how should you respond to them?
Social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. seem cutting edge, but the principle is as old as the hills: word of mouth, sometimes abbreviated as WOM in marketing. Even in the heyday of the mass media, positive recommendations from neighbours, family and friends remained important to a company's success. Newspapers, magazines and television advertising were the first channel introducing a new product to consumers, but word-of-mouth turned out to play a decisive role in what matters most: consumer behaviour. Consumers shared experiences and thereby affected the behaviour of their fellow consumers. Today, more than ever, they do so through social media.
Consumers persuading consumers
Social media are the contemporary, more sophisticated and super-fast successor of old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising. They are a catalyst. Social networks allow people to exchange views, share experiences, express their dissatisfaction, etc. more quickly than ever.
In addition, more and more consumers are opting for a "social search" over search engines such as Google to find information. They consciously do not search the entire internet, but approach their friends on Facebook or contacts on LinkedIn or Twitter. It speeds up the search and makes the result more reliable. The idea is that if X thinks it is good/nice/beautiful, we will probably think it is good/nice/beautiful too. There is also the option to ask questions and really discuss the product or service you need information about.
Consumers talk about all sorts of products (offline and online), from new detergents to new car models. And it is not just young people who are sharing their experiences about products and brands. Young and old, male or female: everyone does it. All these recommendations between consumers are worth gold.
We can illustrate this with an example: computer manufacturer Dell assumes that 25% of its customers choose their brand after it has been recommended by another user. The average purchase value per customer is about 210 dollars. Based on this amount, the value of every recommendation is estimated at 42 dollars. The more consumers Dell can convince to buy its products, the more money it makes.
However, the reverse is equally true: bad word-of-mouth advertising can have devastating effects. Particularly in this age of social media, a bad reputation does not take long to spread.
Social media in 2014
Perhaps Facebook will no longer exist in ten years' time, but it will most certainly have been replaced by something else. Social media are here to stay. It is therefore important for companies to build a good social media strategy. They can start by thinking about which channel they want to use for which content and objective. What do you need to take into account?
- Content (the message to the consumer) is still the key part, but the importance of segmentation is increasing. The audience is varied, so not all content and every channel is suitable for everyone. As a company, it is best to divide your target audience into sub-target groups. You can then choose specific content and a channel per sub-target group.
- Create real-time content: define a number of key moments in the year in advance and use these wisely. The World Cup, back to school, the summer holidays, etc. are all events that happen regularly and companies can respond to in a clever way. The trick is to find a good link between the key moment and your product. Be creative in this respect. If a school bag brand presents its content at the end of August, it will have to use an original approach to avoid coming across as predictable.
- Social media are predominantly a mobile story: most consumers are switching to smartphones and tablets. It is no coincidence that the four best-known social networks are also in the list of most popular mobile apps: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. In any case, your content (both on the website and on social media) will have to be mobile-friendly.
- The importance of customer care is only increasing. Consumers will now use social media more than ever to find information, ask questions and make comments.