Chris Wallace is the President of InnerView, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in internal brand alignment.
The other day I saw a commercial for a local flooring retailer advertising the ability to do a home consultation over video chat. Then, I saw another commercial just like it for a different flooring retailer.
Four months ago, it would have been unimaginable to think that a local mom-and-pop store would offer to replace an in-store shopping experience with a video chat. While that trend is being fueled by necessity as many consumers stay at home, it is unlikely to be a fad that passes quickly.
I believe this has set up a reckoning for smaller independent retailers — especially those that sell higher-priced items like furniture, appliances, automobiles and the aforementioned flooring products — as some consumers emerge from their homes to shop again. If the shutdown accelerated innovation to the point where the “new” way of buying is easier, safer and saves time, Main Street retailers may have to figure out how to deliver that experience consistently — not just during a crisis.
Blending Digital And Human Experiences
For bigger-ticket retail purchases, the equation has been the same for a while: Consumers go online and spend several hours researching what they want to purchase, and then they head to retail locations to look in person. They probably end up talking to three to five retailers before making a purchase.
The pandemic has forced businesses, big and small, to rethink this equation. By offering consumers new ways to shop — video chat, improved online tools, web chat, delivery options, etc. — the process has surprisingly gotten easier. All of these options were offered in some ways before the shutdown, but the technology improved seemingly overnight, and more importantly, consumers became willing to use the tools en masse. Take video chat, for example. Nearly six in 10 Americans (57%) are now using video conferencing, despite 38% saying they had never used it prior to March.
What began as necessary tactics to maintain business through the pandemic have, in many ways, created a better buying experience overall. It used to be that you had two options: buy online or physically go into a store. I think the trick is going to be finding ways to merge the advancements in digital technology with the still-necessary human touch points these major purchases can require.
Big retailers and major brands are already flexing their muscles and introducing new blended experiences. Best Buy is offering virtual consultations related to a wide array of products. Lowe’s has introduced a new augmented reality video chat tool that allows professionals to visit clients’ homes and businesses virtually to evaluate repair and maintenance projects.
While most consumers say they prefer to buy from local retailers, this notion may be tested if the independent store can’t provide the same conveniences.
Customer Service Isn’t The Same As Customer Experience
For generations, independent specialty retailers have hung their hats on service. As big-box stores have popped up, mom-and-pop retailers have sustained themselves with a more specialized, personal level of attention. Their businesses have been built on their presence in the community, product expertise and the promise that they will stand behind their work. This promise has allowed independent retailers to compete and, in many cases, command a premium compared to the big-box alternatives.
The promise of the trusted handshake now has some serious competition. Of course, customer service is part of the overall experience, but the bar was just exponentially raised. There are so many additional variables to navigate in a post-pandemic environment versus just a few months ago. The provider that delivers professional advice and helps customers narrow their buying options all from the comfort of home will likely win in the long run. Convenience, ease of doing business and now safety will likely beat local service as a value proposition. This leaves the local independent retailer with a decision to make: Should they keep pace with the big boxes by delivering a modern experience, or hope there are still a lot of customers who want to go the old-school route?
To Keep Up, Look For Safety In Numbers
Big-box stores have the advantages of resources and human capital. For independents to keep up, they will have to leverage the power of other small business owners, suppliers and industry groups. Many specialty retailers already belong to co-ops or buying groups or participate in manufacturers’ preferred dealer programs. Taking full advantage of these alliances will be increasingly important, along with leveraging local chambers of commerce and industry associations. These groups have long argued that their value is in helping to level the playing field with larger retailers. The time is now to prove that value.
If these partners and programs are really designed to help independent retail channels thrive, they will need to make quick shifts to support programs that emphasize the modern buying experience. This includes things like sourcing or building digital tools that retailers can use to augment their websites. It means designing training programs that help retail staff engage customers via chat and video because the casual shopper is not coming into the store. It means creating forums for retailers to share buying journey ideas and innovations and quickly providing tools and tactics that will allow participants to translate those concepts into action.
Retailers need their partners to provide this support. Independent business owners likely cannot compete if all anyone wants to talk about are new products, advertising co-op dollars or the next retailer appreciation junket. The focus needs to shift quickly — and it is up to owners to lead the discussion and challenge their peers and partners to innovate.
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Author: Chris Wallace, Forbes Councils Member