It’s fair to say that customer expectations have evolved rapidly in recent years.

Across all sectors – public services, transport, even utilities – today’s consumer expects a seamless experience. If this is not delivered, people now have the ability to publicly vent their frustration, such as on social media, and find an alternative provider, as there are plenty of others keen to win their custom.

One sector which has particularly felt this shift over the past 10-15 years is retail. Gone are the days when delivery in 3-5 business days was exceptional, and page load times didn’t matter as people were used to dial up.

Now, online is king and physical retail lags behind, reeling at the news that 16 stores close every day. 

Online retail has opened up the sector and led to the emergence of a host of new competitors. Resultantly, UK retail powerhouses (think M&S, Debenhams, John Lewis) have seen market share cut due to faster, more agile competition branching into their space.

Woolworths’ decline coincided with Amazon’s rise – in-store customer service was no longer enough. Add this to changing customer preferences, and younger generations preferring to ‘self-serve’, and it’s easy to see why retailers are worried about ensuring customers come back. Acquisition and retention are harder than ever, meaning price and product range is no longer the be-all and end-all to consumers.

Today’s era of flexibility and choice has spoilt shoppers. The goalposts keep shifting and retailers need to offer consumers additional incentives to keep them coming back for more. In isolation, good end-to-end experiences are not enough – they need to be frictionless, exceptional, and across multiple touchpoints in order to form a seamless retail experience. Customer experience is no longer about physical service, but about ease and making the process effortless for shoppers in today’s always on world.

A prime example of a retailer which didn’t adopt the right strategy is Jack Wills. Ten years ago it was flying high as the brand of choice for university students; but it failed to keep tabs on the needs and wants of its target demographic. It acts as a stark reminder that continued relevance is more important than historic brand name and reputation.

By failing to prepare to meet the needs of new and evolving generations, the retailer recently faced collapse until a last-minute intervention.

So, what can retailers looking to offer optimal customer experiences learn from this? Other sectors should also monitor this trend, especially as the bar for Customer Experience keeps being raised.

Know who you want to sell to

This perhaps sounds obvious, but keeping up with a target demographic is key in order to effectively proposition new consumers but also to offer the experience they will demand. For example, the emphasis on online needs to be more prominent now compared with ten years ago – something that Jack Wills did not seem to adequately cater for.

The failure to meet demand as preferences for delivery changed may have been an issue. The retailer’s offering of a minimum spend of £50 for slow free delivery or a £6.99 price-tag for next-day wouldn’t have sat well with consumers who are now accustomed to quicker and cheaper delivery. Combine this with its high price tag compared with fast-fashion alternatives like ASOS, which today dropped the price of its annual next-day delivery subscription from £14.99 to £9.95 due to customer feedback, or Boohoo, and it’s not hard to see how heads were turned.

There’s also brand perception. Jack Wills always positioned itself as an elite brand – reflected by its preppy in-store experience and curated sales people, chosen to be synonymous with its image. For some this may be off-putting – especially when combined with its strapline of ‘outfitters to the gentry’, which it quietly dropped a couple of years ago.

In an era where aspiring to be part of a secluded social circle is far less of a priority, Jack Wills no doubt turned away many prospects with the exclusive attitude which had proved so successful in a different time. Abercrombie and Fitch suffered this same issue a few years ago in the United States. Others must learn the lesson that simply changing lines doesn’t keep customers coming back.

Court customers for years

Boohoo is a retail brand which is working wonders. Its profits and growth are extraordinary, and its figures show that is has tapped into a successful formula, with revenue up 48 percent this year and turnover growing 37 percent and 64 percent respectively in the UK and internationally.

It clearly knows what its audience wants – but not content with meeting this need now, it’s also looking towards the future. Its acquisition of the online businesses of Karen Millen and Coast emphasises this.

Boohoo’s online-only offering caters to younger people’s preference for digital shopping, whilst providing more ‘grown up’ options with Karen Millen and Coast will allow it to continue meeting its consumers demands as their tastes evolve. Boohoo is not giving its fanbase a reason to shop around as it is being sure to meet their current and future needs.

Couple this with its frictionless experience (fast, free delivery or incentives to unlock money saving offers) and it’s easy to see why customers love it. This is a stark contrast to Jack Wills failing to offer free returns, unless goods are returned by hand in-store (something time-pressed millennials were no doubt put off by) and the aforementioned delivery costs. It’s clear why younger audiences choose the easier, faster option.

Don’t let them down

It’s also important to remember that reviews matter, and in the age where a bad testimonial can haunt a brand for years, retailers must get better at delivering on their promises.

ASOS is an example of this, and some of its recent problems have related to stock issues and customers being let down last minute as a result. This highlights the importance of a frictionless experience – and one that doesn’t end when a purchase is ratified but extends to after-sale care. A simple way for a retailer to work towards the aim of a frictionless experience is to link its online offering to Order Management Software (OMS).

This will ensure that online stock predictions are accurate at all times so customers don’t lose out. Additionally, physical stores can be used as more than just a showroom – offering pick up from store is becoming increasingly common, and can provide a cheaper, quicker delivery alternative which is appealing to ‘generation now’ (whilst also being more profitable for the retailer).

Customer experience is perhaps entering its most transformative era, as online becomes more important than physical retail. Training for store staff may become less rigorous to match the preference for online, and AI will start to pick up the slack. For retailers, it’s a volatile time and they must be prepared to meet the customer at every possible touchpoint to keep them happy.

There is no doubt that this sky-high expectation will influence customer trends in other sectors too, as brands look to pull their socks up to fight off the competition. In my view, meeting and beating expectations in a timely and profitable manner will be one of the biggest issues facing brands moving forward. What can’t be denied is that firms need to start thinking in the long and short-term in order to court consumers and retain a loyal customer base.

No longer is this relationship simply a transactional one – it’s personal and connected to the feeling the brand elicits. My advice to all is to keep things simple and meet the needs of your audience, thereby not giving them a reason to go elsewhere, now or in the future.

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