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What Is the Future of Retail?

Retailers will soon move to a model by which they sell to customers whenever, wherever and however they want to buy.
By Mark Roberti
Jul 02, 2017

Last week, I wrote about how conventional retailers were struggling with the changes brought by online retailers (see A Cautionary Tale for Conventional Retailers). It's easy to diagnose the problem, but it's always more difficult to suggest a solution. I'm not a retailer, so I am not intimately familiar with all the issues companies are facing, but here's how I see the future of retailing.

Online retailers have a single competitive advantage: convenience. Instead of driving to a store, combing through racks of clothing, trying items on and then buying them, shoppers can now—at any time of day or night—sit at a computer and comb through items. These are typically well organized, making it easy to find the style, color and sizes they like.

When shoppers buy something online, they can get the right size, style and color every time, but if what they receive doesn't fit, they can often use a return label to send the item back, sometimes a no cost. While returns are something of a hassle, the experience of buying online is efficient and convenient.

Conversely, when you drive to a store, you need to find parking. You often don't find the style, color or size you want (inventory accuracy at stores is only about 65 percent), and you often must wait online to pay. No wonder online sales are growing so much faster than in-store sales.

If I were appointed CEO of a retail company, I would look to close the convenience gap that online retailers enjoy—and build up our own competitive advantage that online retailer can't easily match. To improve the instore shopping experience, I would use RFID technology (naturally) to ensure that I always had the customer's color, size and style in stock when they wanted to buy it. I would use an app to allow them to browse styles on their phone or online and locate those exact items in the store quickly and efficiently. I'd make it so anything could be viewed on the Web, on a smartphone app or in the store at any time, and be picked up or delivered within 24 hours.

I would eliminate any internal distinction between online and in-store sales. Sales would be sales. Associates in the store would be familiar with our app and website, and would show customers how to use these to find and buy specific items while in store and pick it up at the store. Customer support online would have access to the inventory in stores and direct customers to specific stores when appropriate.

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