The future of retail has never been so exciting, with increasingly blurred lines between the online and offline worlds, and the reimagining of what a shop in 2017 might look like. With more choice and more disruption comes the pressing question of how retailers can keep customers loyal and engaged throughout this evolution, so they can continue building valuable relationships.

We recently carried out research into the attitudes of 1,000 UK shoppers to see what kind of relationships they have with their favourite retailers, and interestingly, it revealed that 92% of British shoppers would cheat on their favourite retail brands. Only 8% feel truly devoted, the state in which they are least likely to stray. If that’s the case with favourite retailers, then what chance do other retailers have?

Consequently, 2017 is set to see a fundamental shift in the way that retailers interact with their customers by trying new approaches to get their customers to be truly devoted followers of the brand. Retailers need to think about how they build relationships with the loved ones in their lives, such as friends or partners, and apply that to their customers.

As part of our research, we worked with one of the world’s leading researchers on human relationships, Professor Rogge of the University of Rochester. We wanted to see just how far models of human love and devotion could be transposed onto the way that brands build relationships with their customers. Is the relationship you have with a brand like Burberry comparable to the one you have with your partner, for instance?

Triangle of devotion

It turns out that many of the models of devotion that already exist translate very well indeed. With small modifications, Sternberg’s Triangular Model, which measures a relationship on three main criteria – passion, intimacy, and commitment, can be repurposed for brands that want to build meaningful long-term relationships with their customers. In the world of retail, intimacy should be taken to mean the willingness of customers to share information and their interest in learning more about the brand. Meanwhile, passion should be seen in terms of the enthusiasm that customers have for the brand, and commitment should be measured in terms of the loyalty that customers have and their likelihood of making repeat purchases.

Based on these three dimensions, different relationships can be classified in different ways. For example, a relationship with intimacy and passion but no commitment is classified as a Romantic Relationship, while one with intimacy and commitment but no passion is classified as a Compassionate Relationship.

There are six different classifications of customer-retailer relationships in total, with true love, or a Devoted Relationship only occurring where there is intimacy, passion, and commitment. Devotion is for the ultimate goal, where customers stay loyal, become true advocates of the brand and inevitable drive revenue.

How, then, can retailers get closer to customers and advance their relationships? As retailers see their customer loyalty programmes in a more human dimension, they will draw more inspiration from the world of human relationships.

As anyone who’s had a long-term relationship knows, there are several factors that go into building a truly devoted relationship over time, so how can brands inject more passion, intimacy, and commitment into their customer relationships? Some will immediately jump out: more trust, better communication, and those exciting yet unexpected extras. As a result, brands in 2017 could be able to improve devotion with easy fixes to the way they interact with their most important customers, whether through the framework of existing loyalty programmes or otherwise. Our research found that 75% would spend more with a brand if they rewarded them better, while 51% would spend more if they trusted the brand more and 51% would spend more if they had better and more transparent communication.

This change in thinking could be hugely significant for brands in 2017. By shifting the way that loyalty programmes and customer interaction are dealt with, brands can use inspiration from the ‘real world’ of human relationships to create devoted relationships with loyal customers for many years to come. It’s time for brands to get to know their customers better, surprising them with those little extras that show they care. Now more than ever, retailers need devotion, and people to stick with them through thick and thin during a time of change and new developments.

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