It’s been an exciting – and challenging – few years for retail. While the pandemic threw life as we knew it askew, retailers stayed on their feet and adapted.
Now that we can firmly say that we’re living in the “new normal,” it’s more important than ever to remain adaptable and forward-thinking. Human behavior has been permanently altered by the pandemic, and consumers today have heightened expectations for their retail experiences as a result.
Old operational models and customer experience tactics need to be modernized to respond to the pressure being applied by these new consumer behaviors and an uncertain economic outlook.
Let’s take a look at the key retail and customer experience trends for 2023 – and discuss how your business can adequately prepare to win in a new retail environment.
Brick-and-mortar retail is coming back big, but it looks a little different
Humans are always on the search for novelty. After a couple of years of relying on eCommerce and digital channels as primary shopping outlets, consumers are seeking new adventures.
As a result, there’s a rising demand for physical experiences. According to a Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Shopify, consumers are craving in-person shopping. 59% of consumers said they’re likely to look at a product online, but complete the purchase in-store (a.k.a “webrooming”). On the flipside, 54% are likely to look at a product in-store and buy online (a.k.a. “showrooming”).
It’s clear that digital retail alone doesn’t fully meet the needs of the majority of today’s consumers. Shoppers want to see, feel, and try on products in person. Also, after a couple of years of relative isolation, they’re searching for a sense of community – something that’s acutely felt when immersed in an in-store experience.
At the same time, the brick-and-mortar landscape is getting crowded again. According to Shopify, digitally native brands are increasingly opening up physical storefronts in response to rising digital ad costs, searching for ways to decrease expenses and lower CAC.
This trend will further condition consumers to expect physical experiences as part of the customer journey, so brands need to think hard about how they can create a winning in-store customer expreience.
Omnichannel/hybrid retail is here to stay
Hybrid/omnichannel retail strategies already saw widespread growth and adoption before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, hybrid sales were up 35% from the year before.
However, with social distancing orders widespread around the globe during the pandemic, hybrid retail saw explosive growth with offerings like BOPIS, curbside pickup, click-and-collect, reserve online pay in person, and buy online return in store gaining popularity.
Consumers have come to expect these options as the status quo from all retailers. They enjoy the flexibility and convenience these services unlock. Brands that are able to give their customers an abundance of choice when it comes to hybrid shopping are sure to become category leaders.
Free guide: The Curbside Pickup Operations Handbook
Operationally, in-store services like BOPIS, curbside pickup, and returns can be incredibly simple to set up and run with the right partner. A customer flow management system like Waitwhile allows you to customize any number of service flows and automate key processes to keep things moving smoothly. You can easily add appointment scheduling or virtual queues to your customer journey, making the in-store pickup or return process simple and delightful for customers.
In addition to the increased popularity of these hybrid retail offerings, the retail landscape in 2023 is headed toward a true omnichannel positioning. The pandemic catalyzed digital adoption across all consumer cohorts. The integration of tech into all parts of our lives is now second nature for shoppers of all ages.
What results is a blurring of the lines between channels. Whereas 5 or 10 years ago you may have had distinct customer journeys for each of your channels, today brands need to consider the omnichannel customer journey.
Consumers are no longer embarking on linear, single-channel journeys. Instead, their behavior is much more fluid and channel-diverse. For example, a customer may first discover your brand on social, schedule a virtual shopping appointment to consult with one of your stylists, visit a store to see products in person, complete the purchase via your e-commerce site, and then choose to pick-up their purchases curbside.
Important to consider, too, are the expectations today’s shoppers bring with them. The digital world has taught us to expect personalization, convenience, and instant gratification. As a result, the modern consumer doesn’t like to wait and expects high-touch retail experiences – regardless of channel.
To deliver standout experiences that will wow customers and create brand loyalists, you need to ensure that your customer journey delivers on these new consumer expectations across your omnichannel presence. And more than ever before, you need to ensure that your cross-channel experience is a consistent one because customers are jumping between online and offline channels more than ever before.
Personal shopping & virtual consultations are on the rise
Personal shopping experiences have traditionally been most strongly associated with luxury retail, but over the past couple of years we’ve seen more diverse brands – like American Eagle and Lululemon – start offering this service. Retailers are offering both in-person and virtual shopping experiences where customers can chat with store associates via video.
There are two catalysts for this phenomenon: (1) traditional retailers are increasingly looking for points of differentiation in a crowded market and (2) consumers have been conditioned by digital to expect personalization at every touch point. According to an Epsilon survey, 80% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalized experiences.
Key to executing personal shopping experiences is having a surefire way to manage customer flow and organize customer data. Platforms like Waitwhile have virtual queueing and appointment scheduling features which will be critical. Additionally, you’ll be able collect customer data that you can then use to personalize each touch point.
Related: What are virtual queues?
Automation will be key to respond to workforce challenges
According to McKinsey & Company, “almost half of US frontline retail employees and two-thirds of frontline managers say they are thinking about leaving their jobs in the next few months.” The “Great Attrition” is putting retailers in a tricky conundrum as most are seeing a huge resurgence in demand for brick-and-mortar experiences while struggling to retain or hire talent.
To deal with this strain on resources, retailers must harness automation wherever possible to unlock operational efficiency. This doesn’t necessarily mean fully replacing frontline employees with tech (95% of consumers don’t want to talk to robots while shopping), but instead thinking about where operational flows can be optimized.
Customer flow management systems like Waitwhile allow retailers to automate and improve many aspects of the customer journey, including queue management, appointment scheduling, calendar management, and customer communication.
Importantly, many of these management tasks are seen as tedious by frontline employees, so automating them can pay off well when it comes to employee satisfaction. Additionally, less time spent on things like queue management means that employees are able to make more impact where it matters: delivering standout customer service.
The death of the cookie is delayed, but retailers still need to act now
In July 2022, Google announced a second delay in its deprecation of third-party cookies – this time delaying their discontinuation until at least 2024. The news of this seismic shift to the digital retail landscape isn’t new, but many retailers need to take swift action.
Browser cookies provide a large amount of data on customer and shopping behaviors to businesses. While this may only seem to apply to digital channels like eCommerce and social commerce on face value, consumer preference for omnichannel journeys means that the impact will be felt on the brick-and-mortar side as well.
As third-party data becomes less available, retailers need to harness opportunities to generate and collect first-party data. With rising consumer expectations for personalization, this is even more urgent.
Customer flow management systems like Waitwhile are a great way to log, analyze, and then apply first-party data. Not only can you automatically keep track of key operational metrics across any number of locations (e.g., customer volume, employee productivity, etc.), but you can also centralize customer data that is generated through SMS, email, or in-person communication.
How retail and customer experience is changing in 2023
Much of 2022 was spent finding our footing again, and now it feels like the world is ready to hit its stride again.
For the retail landscape, this means looking at what worked during the pandemic (intentionally or not) and cementing those learnings in permanent operational changes. As always, retailers need to remain consumer-obsessed. The fact that the modern shopper is bringing with them heightened expectations for high-touch, expedient, and personalized experiences needs to be reflected in your strategy.
The brands that win in 2023 will be those that are able to deliver on these consumer desires while staying operationally efficient in an uncertain economic climate.