“More often than not, retail functions exactly the way that it did 20 years ago,” said Cate Trotter, Head of Trends for Insider Trends. “It’s not changing as fast as other trend spotters might tell you, particularly in the physical store. If we fast forward 10 or 20 years, I’m not sure we will need retail in its traditional state.”

Trotter is a futurist, speaker, influencer, strategist, and consultant who works with retailers and direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands around the globe to improve their omnichannel strategies, spur innovation, and boost revenues with easy wins. She was the guest on “Is Physical Retail Dead?,” hosted by Sergio Iacobucci, director of product marketing for Coveo, part of a new podcast series from Coveo called “The Ecommerce Expectation.”

Although she has heard many brick-and-mortar retailers talk about how they are creating engaging, exciting, and extremely customer-focused environments, “I don’t see a lot of that in most stores I visit,” Trotter said. “Mostly it’s just walking up and down aisles of shelves and locating the item that you want by yourself. It’s not a particularly inspiring or efficient experience.”

Companies that continue to depend primarily on their retail locations are in peril, according to Trotter.

“We recommend that our clients think digital-first,” she explained. “There are definite advantages to having stores, but if retailers looked at all the different methods of interaction they have at their disposal, they wouldn’t rely as much on [physical] stores as they do today.”

The Future Will Come from Transformative Technologies

When Trotter and Iacobucci continued their conversation in the episode titled, “The World in 2035, Your Strategy in 2022,” Trotter emphasized that technology is driving change at an exponential rate, magnified by the number of technologies that are simultaneously maturing. 

These include virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence, cloud computing, smart sensors, 3D printing, nanotechnology, smart materials, green technology, and sustainable energy. “All these individually accelerating technologies are going to start interacting with one another even more,” she added.

“I would argue that the leading retailers of 2035 will be more like tech companies than retailers, and they don’t even exist yet,” Trotter said. “We can expect them to come out of nowhere and amaze us all.”

That doesn’t mean retailers and brands should become paralyzed by uncertainty. By focusing on their strengths and understanding their audiences, each brand or retailer can find “their right technologies and their right next steps,” Trotter said.

In addition, retailers will have to work harder to get the digital customer data they have become accustomed to getting rather easily. The three major web browsers—Chrome, Safari, and Firefox—will have eliminated third-party tracking cookies by the end of 2022. And Apple’s latest operating systems for iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and Apple Watches allow users to block third-party tracking pixels and mask their IP addresses.

Trotter noted that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the UK’s publicly funded but independently operated media organization, is working on a solution called My PDS (Personal Data Store) that would allow consumers to secure the data multiple sources have gathered about them and decide how and with whom they will share their data.

The project is at a very early stage, but the BBC said, “This work provides ground-breaking new ways to make data a force for good. It benefits people and society by letting users decide how information about them is used to make decisions and predictions.”

The Omnichannel Spectrum

It’s hard to find a retailer or brand that doesn’t say it is dedicated to improving the customer experience, but “customers don’t compare retail experiences to other retail experiences. They compare them to the best experiences they’ve had anywhere,” Trotter noted. That means they compare a retailer’s personalization to Netflix and Spotify, its fulfillment and delivery to Amazon, and its convenience to Doordash.

Consumers will increasingly compare their digital experiences to the metaverse, a term that was elevated into mass consciousness when Facebook Inc. changed its name to Meta. “The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world,” according to the company. “It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together—and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world.”

Not much is known about the specifics of the metaverse, but Trotter predicts it will enable brands to “connect in a way that doesn’t have to be constrained by physical requirements.”

In the meantime, retailers and brands can experiment with immersive 3D digital stores, which have become more affordable. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to experiment with some of these bleeding-edge, digital-first environments, and now is a good time to start playing around with them,” she said. 

The Future of Personalization

Like customer experience, omnichannel personalization is a retail buzzword, and “most big brands would say their in-store experience is better than their online experience,” Iacobucci observed. But they don’t always meet customer expectations: from a survey of 4,000 shoppers across the U.S. and UK by Coveo, while 47% said they expected online shopping to be as good as or better than in-person, only 13% said they always experienced an online shopping experience that felt personalized to their specific buying habits.

Trotter countered that “ecommerce can surpass the in-store experience,” but most omnichannel brands aren’t there yet. Her advice for bridging the gap? The first step is making sure they have the best possible business now, Trotter responded. “Huge gains that can be made just by refocusing on bread-and-butter things. If you can get an increase of a couple of percent in a few areas, all of that compounds, and you can change the fortunes of a business very quickly,” she said.

To go forward, she advises, brands should “take a massive blank sheet of paper. Think, ‘What would I do if I was starting again? How would I connect with customers? How would I bring my brand to life?’ And then work backwards from that.”Listen to the full podcast episodes on Apple and Spotify.

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About Marie Griffin

Marie Griffin is a seasoned business journalist and editor, as well as a content marketing consultant, living in northern New Jersey. Her diverse retail experience includes editor-in-chief posts at publications covering home furnishings, eyewear, Halloween, and chain and independent drug stores, as well as freelance writing in the general retail and retail technology fields.

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