Savvy retailers and other developers of branded environments seek purposeful innovation that serves customers and builds brand loyalty.
While that goal remains the same year to year, customers’ diverse wants and needs continually evolve, driven by new technologies, evolving consumer preferences and economic shifts.
So here are six strategic focuses that should be front of mind as we look ahead to 2024.
Leverage AI in diverse, purposeful ways
AI is here. Embrace it.
It can support and advance your goals and productivity in many diverse and useful ways: predictive inventory management, personalized customer engagement, real-time customer insights and promotions, interactive shopping experiences and even as a store layout collaborator.
It’s not about replacing human workers. It’s about fostering a useful integration, whether that’s about making mundane but important written communications easieror managing complex data analysis that produces real-time customer insights.
Engage thoughtfully. Experiment. New and transformative technology is often difficult to fully process in a few weeks, months or even a year. Know that completely understanding what’s ahead isn’t possible, as Microsoft strategy head Chris Young recently told the Wall Street Journal.
“My point of view is this is going to change how we live our lives, down to how you buy coffee in a coffee shop,” Young said. “I think it is going to be transformative and I think that is a long-arc problem now. What happens in year two or three in terms of the actual demand that comes through? I don’t think anybody knows exactly.”
Embrace continual omnichannel reinvention
“Omnichannel reinvention” isn’t only about integrating new technology. It’s also about understanding your customers and what they want — and how a single person is often multiple customers, depending on day, time and purchase target.
“Gen Z shoppers are standing out for their preference for physical stores rather than relying solely on the convenience of online shopping. Nearly 97% of Gen Z survey respondents who shop at brick-and-mortar stores also shop online (95%), according to the ICSC report.”
Invest in technologies that allow you to track inventory across all channels, offer same-day delivery and pickup options, and provide personalized customer service experiences.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will play a more prominent role in enhancing the online shopping, while stores will need to upgrade the in-person experience with entertainment and immersive shopping. This will include interactive displays, real-time personalized technology and in-store events — “Retailtainment” — making shopping an enjoyable and memorable activity.
Rethink physical space but don’t forget the practical
Retailers recognize a need to refresh stores. They seek innovation and new omnichannel technology (see above). They experiment with different footprints. They offer a variety of delivery, pickup and checkout options. They integrate social media shopping and livestreaming. All good.
But analog merchandising and displays are still foundational to store environments and shouldn’t be backgrounded, even when supply chains are working well. Continue to prioritize developing and maintaining a scaled and holistic, store-by-store understanding of décor, costs and project execution parameters that provides branded environmental upgrades while meeting budgets and timing requirements.
Designing, engineering, sourcing, procuring, warehousing, delivering and installing fixtures, displays, end caps and traditional island and wall gondolas remain a critical part of store development and the customer experience.
Understanding and embracing “what’s next” is important, but so is retaining a disciplined focus on the never-ending trend of purposeful and practical.
Expect consumer mood swings; support your associates
So… economic uncertainty? Divisive elections? Widespread grumpiness.
Retail, even in the best of times, is never easy. But your diverse customers will enter your stores often on edge over the next year. That could be about their pocketbooks or their candidates. Or both. Or something else entirely.
And, of course, it’s not just customers. Your associates are human, too, and some are expecting less investment in them in 2024 as businesses tighten their collective belts.
Priority one in retail is the customer experience, so you do whatever you can to lighten the mood and surprise and delight those who enter your stores. But we’d also advise you to thoroughly prepare for customer-service challenges, including providing associate support when things get difficult or even combative.
Clear protocols and training from management on down should clarify expectations for challenging situations and crisis management.
Further, special moments of recognition for associates who go above and beyond to support customers, your store and their co-workers always provide positive results.
Challenge conventional brand thinking
Social media commerce? Livestream shopping? Unconventional brand partnerships? Retail media networks? A metaverse revisit?
Retailers often attract and retain customers in unconventional ways, and every year it pays to analyze the evolving landscape and consider what might be next.
Yes, perhaps a metaverse initiative in 2022 fell short of expectations, or your customers didn’t engage with a livestream shopping effort on social media. Trends don’t always evolve in predictable patterns, particularly with technology.
Test-fail is part of business and it often leads to rethink, re-test… succeed.
Consider ESG a core value and business priority
ESG — Environmental, Social and Governance — has become politicized and fraught of late. Inauthenticity and virtue signaling as well as neglect can be sniffed out from all sides of contentious issues, and all sides probably shop at your stores.
As always, it’s complicated. Some customers might prioritize sustainability but are skeptical about “social” and “governance.” And vice versa.
At Miller Zell, we view practical and focused ESG initiatives as not just about doing the right thing. We see them as sound business practices that your customers and associates will value and respect.
Further, reducing environmental impact, recycling and sustainability programs can save you money, thereby justifying themselves with ROI.
Finally, the future likely favors ESG; see your younger customers. More on Gen Z from Forbes:
"As they make purchases, they’re doing so with intention, preferring to shop with brands that align with their values of authenticity and ethical practices. They seek retailers that champion sustainability, diversity, and social responsibility. More than half (53%) of Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy from brands that support mental health, and 47% prefer brands supporting sustainability initiatives, 47% prefer brands supporting racial and gender equality, according to the ICSC report. They are more likely to support businesses that prioritize fair labor practices and eco-friendly initiatives. In doing so, they use their purchasing power to advocate for a better world while fulfilling their holiday shopping needs."
Every year is interesting and surprising and complicated, and 2024 will be no different. As we noted at the end of 2022, retailers should remain agile and adaptable to effectively respond to changing consumer preferences and market dynamics.