Digital Superstars 2015: Inside the Retail Strategies of Today's Online Leaders

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Leaders offer laggards advice on how to jumpstart their digital retail strategies in the new year.
Customer Experience

With consumer expectations riding high, the digital wave of retail innovation continues to flow with vigor. Yet, while online retailers are looking for ways to bring their Web stores to life, and traditional retailers are integrating digital techniques to develop an omnichannel experience, leaders in the space are lighting the path toward success by remaining one step ahead of the competition.

Each new year brings the promise of renewal, but for digital retailers, this fresh start will come about by embracing the old. Leaders will actively work to bridge the gap between online and offline as they integrate the personalized service of traditional stores and the convenience of digital self-service and socialization. Digital innovation requires retailers to invest time, money, and resources into developing omnichannel strategies and technologies that erase silos and advance the holistic customer experience. Thus, as 2015 begins, leaders and laggards must be sure their new outlook concentrates on these three elements:

Listening

While all retailers have some sort of voice of the customer platform in place, those who wish to lead must come to understand both consumer behavior and sentiment in an effort to apply direct insights to their evolving digital strategies. By seeking customer feedback, retailers not only learn how shoppers currently interact with their brands, but also how they'd like to engage in the future. Leaders will use such feedback to identify cracks in their business, as the consumer perspective will reveal areas ripe for improvement. Such insight can fuel future advancements, as said opportunities may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

"The opportunity is now," highlights Jonathan Hinz, U.S. director of product marketing at Trustpilot. "As a brand, ask yourself: With everyone purchasing from everyone, why would they buy from you? Businesses can only truly distinguish themselves through the voices of their customers."

Reid Carr, president and CEO at Red Door Interactive, emphasizes that companies don't need to reinvent the industry in order to lead the way. Retailers need only listen and get to know their customers in order to develop strategies that will bring added value to their daily lives, for those who solve problems that have gone unattended will surely lead the way during 2015. "If your consumer typically experiences your product while cooking, then help them cook," Carr says. "If your brand is about cost saving, then help them save money. Experiment with options, get yourself in front of your customers, and make improvements bit by bit."

Analyzing

Once retailers have established their foundation for collecting insights, they must also be able to follow through and act upon said feedback. Thus, the future of digital retail will rely on data analytics and the ability to parse sentiment in their effort to drive results. "It all comes down to data-how companies understand what they have and how to organize and utilize it," Mark Flaharty, executive vice president of advertising at SundaySky, says. "Retailers that do this best will change, for the better, the way they interact and engage with their existing and prospective customers. Such retail marketers will also create greater value for their business via the increased loyalty that comes from enhanced engagement."

Flaharty notes that retailers must maintain their data "plumbing" to keep information flowing throughout the entire organization. Cultivating enterprisewide understanding will foster consistency and relevancy, enabling brands to connect with customers at the right time with the right message via the right channel. Retailers that choose to leverage customer data to deliver personalized experiences will be the ones that stand out in the space, as their proactive approach-recommending additional products to accompany recent purchases or offering free shipping on an item they previously viewed but didn't buy-will set them apart from competitors and build long-lasting relationships.

Experimenting

At the heart of every successful retailer lies the willingness to experiment with and test new strategies. As Kim Ann King, CMO of SiteSpect, emphasizes, this mindset empowers retailers to test which combination of content, features, and functionalities online shoppers prefer so they may target accordingly to increase conversion rates and revenue via personalization. Carr echoes this sentiment, noting that those who are able to bridge the physical and digital worlds will lead, for they understand that the consumer's world isn't exclusively online or offline.

"Once the data plan is in place, each leading brand must instill a culture of learning and experimentation," Carr adds. "Not everything works, but they learn-and iterate from these learnings-to improve the experience, as well as the overall performance. The only failure is if the company doesn't learn from each attempt, or if the bet is too big."

Experimentation, of course, relies heavily on measurement, for retailers must be crunching the numbers to determine whether or not the given test succeeds. Ultimately, leaders will meet consumers wherever they are and merge creative with technology to use appropriate tactics at each step along the customer journey. Laggards also need to realize that, despite their desire to catch up to and surpass their more successful counterparts, they don't need to be the first to market with everything as long as they're focused on bolstering their positions in the minds of their customers. In fact, laggards can learn from big business examples, applying previous failures to fuel their own success. No matter the situation, retailers must never lose sight of why their current customers already love and trust their brands.

Macy's, Amazon, and Gap Deliver Real-Time Results

In 2015, leading retailers will continue to bridge the gap between online and offline interactions by using digital technology to create an omnichannel experience. Order fulfillment currently dominates such initiatives, as leaders work to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. Adam Silverman, principal analyst at Forrester Research, predicts that the business case for enterprise fulfillment-the ability to view and fulfill inventory from any location within the organization-will see major growth due to ship-from-store, click and collect, and ship-to-store initiatives. This focus will foster stronger internal relationships, while also enhancing customer experience across platforms.

Macy's, for instance, recently launched its same-day delivery pilot program. For $5, Macy's will ship online orders (of $99 or more) directly to the customer's door within the designated two-hour window. Though this strategy requires precise, real-time stock visibility and increased employee training, Macy's has now positioned itself to expand and improve its offering, for this initiative plays into the spirit of testing and experimentation. Amazon offers similar options for its Prime subscribers. Prime Now allows qualifying New York City residents to receive any of Amazon's 25,000 everyday household items within one hour for $7.99. Amazon recognizes that Prime members are more loyal and shop more frequently, so the online retailer will continue to create products and services for said individuals exclusively.

Gap, however, has linked its digital Web store with its brick-and mortar locations by enabling customers to "reserve in store." Shoppers need only choose their items online and designate their preferred pick-up location. Associates will then pull the order from the floor and email or text the customer once their items are available. Many use this service to get in and out of the store quickly, while others use these tools to jumpstart their in-store search. This added convenience allows Gap to deepen its relationships by treating existing customers to an innovative experience unlike any they'd ever had with the brand before.

Nordstrom Embraces Social Shopping Online and In-Store

Because social media has become an integral element for digital strategies across the industry, retailers continue to look for innovative ways to engage consumers using said channels. Nordstrom continues to lead the way as it integrates these digital behaviors with its in-store strategy. Nordstrom began to blur the lines between online and offline by using Pinterest activity to influence its in-store displays. Now, at many of the retailer's brick-and-mortar locations, consumers will see Nordstrom's most popular 'pins' marked with the Pinterest logo, indicating that the given item has garnered much attention via social media. Customers can, essentially, walk into a store and view the latest trending items with ease.

Nordstrom has also begun to embrace the latest social shopping platform, Wanelo, by displaying trending items on TVs throughout more than 100 of its retail locations. Wanelo-short for want, need, love-has gained great momentum among the Millennial set, presenting Nordstrom with the opportunity to tap into this younger market via channels they already use. Each week, Nordstrom takes stock of the top 100 trending items and displays those available in-store on TV screens throughout the junior department. This tactic allows Nordstrom to engage with young shoppers by telling them of what's popular, while also enabling the retailer to identify growing trends in an effort to better target this demographic. Nordstrom will inevitably gain the competitive advantage with regard to Millennials, as other leading brands struggle to develop personalized, targeted tactics that appeal to these innately digital shoppers.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION