How the 21st-century consumer is changing the nature of online retail

Will Lownsbrough, founder and CEO of Shoptility – a new retail platform that puts online shoppers in direct contact with retailers – argues that retailers are not as innovative as they ought to be.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every time you had an online shopping experience, you got exactly what you wanted, delivered efficiently and with the highest levels of customer service? I don’t need a crystal ball to tell me that this seemingly simple aspiration doesn’t match today’s reality.

My personal view is that the retail industry isn’t as innovative as it could, or should be. Certainly, online shopping is nowhere near fully evolved.

This is possibly because the internet still remains an undervalued resource for some retailers, while others still seem to be recovering from an internet hangover, adopting a ‘let’s go nuts’ attitude on this new thing which means we can sell more, gain new clients, offer less service AND save money. It was never going to last, was it?

But it’s more than that; we are dealing with a new 21st-century consumer; savvy, with higher expectations and arguably more purchasing power than we may have seen a decade ago. These days, we’re far more likely to be influenced by a recommendation from friends or family than by advertising or promotional content created by a brand.

Add social media to the mix, and this revolution in how we’ve begun to shop and engage with businesses is a game changer for retailers, demanding a more customer-centric approach. Social media is driving dialogue and conversations between consumers online, which in turn can create the market for products; “When is the new iPhone 6 coming out? You can now get a pair of Nike Huarache in purple – I’d love them to do a pink variation that’s a lot more girly…”

These are conversations that brand owners want to be privy to. Essentially, social media is no longer about just offering marketing opportunities for businesses to promote themselves and their products. Instead it has become an important tool for customers to share information and, more importantly, opinions about their retail experiences.
Which begs the question, while it is unquestionably an important measurement tool, are retailers missing a trick by obsessing about ROI when their real focus should be on cultivating relationships with customers for the long term?

Loyalty is built on brand promise and interaction is at the forefront of how consumers want to engage with retailers. Bad experiences years ago would have warranted a carefully penned letter to the head of customer services, or at most, a rant to a producer at Watchdog. Fast-forward to 2014 and we’re more likely to be venting to our Facebook friends and Twitter followers and tweeting the CEO of a company demanding a prompt response or desired action.

The proliferation of live chat, and the number of businesses adopting such platforms, is an indication that customers want the opportunity to engage and interact with retailers, in pursuit of making an informed purchase.

Ok, customer endorsements don’t equate to an improved bottom line, but they are powerful indicators that a retailer is doing something right.

Customer experiences should reflect the values of a retailer and when done right, can successfully build an army of advocates and brand ambassadors for your business.
There is a distinct correlation between a happy customer experience and a ‘successful’ brand – one reason why John Lewis consistently features among the top rankings in brand index league tables.

A faceless transaction just won’t cut it with today’s discerning consumer. That’s why forward-thinking retailers should be focusing their efforts on replicating everything that is great about high street shopping in the online world. As I see it, the future lies in delivering a customer experience that marries the anytime, anywhere convenience of the internet with the personal service and human touch of the face-to-face. What is good for customers is good for business, so let’s give customers what they want.

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