What customers want: The future of retail in a digital world


Knowing what the customer wants has always been the key to successful retailing. Looking at a brief history of retail innovation we can see that giving the customer what they want has long been a driver of change:

  • The department store began more than 150 years ago to give customers what they wanted – convenient access to mass merchandise such as clothing, appliances, furniture and items for the home.
  • Shopping malls and specialty stores began to appear in the 1920’s and evolved throughout 1940-1950’s as automobiles became common and customers wanted more suburban convenience.
  • Discount chains and big box merchants arose in the 1960’s – 1970’s to challenge the department and mall stores to give customers lower prices on a wide assortment of everyday products.
  • E-commerce came along in the 1980’s – 1990s and exploded with the launch of search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN. Giving customers a faster and more convenient ways to shop.
  • Today mobile and digital technology is the next era of retail innovation. Giving consumers greater access, convenience and competitive prices than ever before.

With each era of change new retailers reset the shopping experience and customer expectations. Today digital retailers like iTunes, Amazon and Google Play are where consumers shop for music, books and movies.

Most consumers now buy airline tickets, book hotel rooms and rent car using websites and apps from Travelocity, Priceline, Kayak, Orbitz, TripAdvisor, Hotels.com and others.

Digital retailers like Zappos, HauteLook, Lululemon, Sephora and more have made it easier, faster and more convenient than ever before for consumers to buy clothing and personal products in a hassle-free way.

The “Digi-tail” Era

When it comes to retail innovation one thing remains constant – customers are continuing to look for convenience, choice, value and an enjoyable shopping experience.

While the department store, discount chain, mall, and big box center may no longer be the most convenient way to shop it doesn’t mean the end of these retail models.

But for those retail pioneers from earlier eras that fail to recognize how digital technology has changed shopper expectations and experiences – such as Sears, JCPenny, Best Buy, Circuit City, Barnes & Noble, Dominick’s Grocery Stores and others – it’s time to adapt, revamp or die.

To survive, and even thrive, in today’s era of “digi-tail” means using technology to give customers more of what they want. And just what does today’s digital and mobile shopper want? The same thing that customers have always wanted – choice, convenience, value and personalized service

Using Data to Personalize the Customer Experience

The future of retail is one where data and technology are being fully utilized to deliver individualized products, service and offers. If you’re a retailer who doesn’t know your customer personally and have the ability to quickly, conveniently and affordably give them what they are looking for then you are vulnerable to becoming obsolete.

Knowing what the customer wants has always been the key to successful retailing. Using advances in technology and data science it is now possible to analyze the complete history of customer transactions and identify individual shopping habits, patterns and motives that drive behavior.

Many traditional retailers such as Kroger, Macy’s, Walmart, Home Depot, Dominos and others have already discovered the power of examining and analyzing buying behavior to communicate with customers on a more individual basis based on their buying patterns, preferences, needs and motives.

In the next few years retailers who focus on combining data and digital technology to deliver a better customer experience will unlock the ability to give customers what they want – a more relevant, more personalized and more convenient way to shop for and buy everyday products and services.

The Future of Grocery Shopping

What might the future I’ve described for retail look like? Let’s use one of my local retailers as an example. Meijer is a mass merchant that I shop frequently and primarily use for their grocery and pharmacy.

When I fill a recurring prescription with Meijer they currently notify me by phone when it’s time to refill, which I find to be a nice reminder and convenience.

The opportunity for Meijer however is far greater and deeper than just getting me to refill a prescription. If they analyzed my transactions using data from my mPerks account they could easily realize that my individual shopping behavior is driven by a motive to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Analyzing my weekly purchases Meijer should see that I buy lots of fresh produce, eat a mostly vegetarian diet and don’t consume very many processed foods or products. These transactions combined with my regular purchase of a prescription for a cholesterol lowering medication should make it clear the folks at Meijer that I’m not someone you should mail a weekly flyer filled with deals on meat, packaged goods, soda and sweets. Because no matter what deal you offer me on these kinds of products – I’m not buying them.

Retailers who understand that the future of their business truly depends on giving the customer what he or she wants will be much more diligent in using the information already available to them to customize and personalize the shopper experience.

Maybe one day soon my local Meijer will text me a link I can open in a digital app or via a mobile friendly website that lets me “click” to refill on the grocery items I actually buy from them each week. Who knows, they may even add a thank-you reward and discount so I can prepay and pick up my normal grocery items at customer service instead of having to spend an hour of my day gathering these products throughout the store.

The future for retailers in a digital world depends on knowing and anticipating what the customer wants. Those retailers who do a better job at uncovering shopper needs, behavior and motives will be the ones best able to personalize the customer experience and deliver the next era of retail innovation.


Rich Taylor
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January 7, 2015
Rich Taylor

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