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Retail is like dating.

By Alfredo Muccino and Emily Buchholtz

Technology, mobility and social media, among other things, have dramatically changed the retail landscape. But the future of retail is bigger than flashy new technologies or the hyper-connected Internet of Things. Success lies in giving consumers more than what they’ve come to expect from the shopping process. In this report, we explore the notion that brands and retailers need to embrace the idea that retail is an opportunity to build relationships by creating experiences that are relevant, intimate, and fun. In other words, the future of retail is a lot like dating.

Welcome to the new consumer paradigm.


Whether shopping with desktop, mobile, social or in-store, the retail experience should be one that feels less like a path to purchase and more like a first date that went really, really well. So well that the customer is already thinking of the 10th date—so well, that neither brand, nor customer, can think of being with anyone else.

It means every digital tactic must be executed in the pursuit of getting to know the consumer, so that every message intrigues her, appreciates her, and continues to draw her into a personalized brand experience—because in the “future of retail,” it is all about the consumer. Consumers make the rules and now have total access to whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want it. The power has shifted away from retailers who long held it—and now the ball is in the consumer’s court. Brands and retailers are forced to play on the consumer’s terms to be successful. And the more brands can understand, connect and delight consumers instead of sell to them, the more long-term success and sustainability they will enjoy.

No single factor led to this new consumer paradigm—instead, many things collided to give more accessibility to shoppers and to push retail into a new era. The greatest insight from this collision? It will take much more than access to win the hearts of consumers.

To break it down further, think back to department stores and catalogs—retailers controlled everything. They set the time, place and parameters for consumers to shop—and consumers, excited to have “stuff,” just accepted what they got. They were at the whim of manufacturers and retailers, restricted to physical store hours or specific catalogue offerings. There was no opportunity, or even vision, for digital tools that would allow 24/7 shopping at any store in the world from any device one might choose. But then along came the Internet, and with it a plethora of new technologies, that now allow consumers to cross physical and digital platforms whenever and however they want. It’s given consumers total accessibility, which yields heightened expectations and has ultimately sparked a change in mindset—from “I need stuff” to “I want an experience.” This mindset ties into a larger shift in consumer values: To achieve happiness and wellbeing, consumers now look to experiences instead of stuff. The product is no longer enough. As competition thickens, it takes more than price, convenience, or selection to earn sales. In the future of retail, it takes a fully integrated experience to keep and sustain consumer attention.

The convergence of a new consumer paradigm and overcrowded marketplace has finally brought the (retail) industry to the brink of fundamental change.

Robin Lewis

The Robin Report

Social currency is the new goal.


The experience needs to go beyond simply merging physical and digital platforms. It needs to be integrated at a personal level with the needs, wants, and lifestyle of each individual consumer. Brands and retailers need to strike an emotional and meaningful connection throughout the shopping experience. The connection should be so strong, consumers feel compelled to come back for more and share the experience with their community, which, thanks to social media, has grown from what may have been 10 people before, to hundreds and thousands of interconnected friends and influencers throughout the world. To leverage these connections, the smartest brands will find innovative ways to build kinship among shoppers and will start to focus less on actual currency and more on social currency to maximize ROI.

Retail04Retail Study: STORY NYC
Every four to eight weeks, STORY completely reinvents itself and features a new theme, trend, or issue through merchandise selection and retail design. The store concept and its ingredients change with the seasons and the community­­—ranging from wellness, to men’s essentials, to art; from pasta-making classes to TED talks. It is a retail concept that goes beyond consumption and serves as a matchmaker between bran ds and consumers by integrating strategists of marketing, merchandising, and business development. On average, most new retail concepts take about three years to turn a profit. STORY was profitable in year one. Its success has made STORY a media-darling, attracting new customers, brands and partners. Schechtman’s concept delivers on the idea of consistent and creative collaboration and it continues to evolve and grow each year.

Don’t think about sales per square foot, but experience per square foot.

Rachel Schechtman

Founder of STORY

Positive relationships lead to transactions.

Retail05Out of this new model, two truths emerge to help guide successful retail strategies. The first, engaging experiences help build relationships. And the second, relationships lead to more and better transactions. Improving the customer experience by just 10% can yield more than $1 billion in additional revenue. An understandable fact considering 86% of buyers will pay more for a better experience. To stand out, the experience needs to resonate on a deeper level and give them something they cannot get anywhere else. It should feel personal and go beyond consumption. It should put customers at the center of a story that brings them deeper into the brand and into the product.

Retail06Retail Study: AT&T
Walk into the AT&T Flagship store on Michigan Ave. in Chicago and you walk into a digital playground where you can explore apps, interact with new technology, enjoy local art, and participate in various hands-on games. Every initiative aims to educate customers about the possibilities of AT&T services and the future of wireless technology. “Customers can touch, feel, and see how our latest devices and apps will fit their lifestyles, whether they’re interested in fitness or music, entertainment, or family. You won’t find another store like this anywhere else in the country,” says Paul Roth, President of AT&T retail sales. It is a strategy that puts interactivity, experience, and education ahead of “selling.”

Connecting is crucial.

To connect with customers and differentiate from the competition, brands need to create a space that is authentic to the brand and that gives consumers the meaningful experience they are looking for. The store, whether online or not, is now another opportunity to make connections, not just sell stuff.

Consumers are demanding more.


Consumers today seek reciprocal relationships with partners who ‘get’ them—who are into the same things, who speak their language, who want similar outcomes in life, and who are willing to be invested in a relationship. Retailers and brands should seek meaningful encounters, rather than just incenting cold, one-time transactions.

Dee Warmath

Retailing expert

Consumers want engaging and rewarding experiences. By embracing this “want” we have an opportunity to build stronger and more meaningful relationships. Consumers who feel an emotional connection to a retailer are four times more likely to shop with them—the greater the emotional connection, the stronger the relationship, and the higher the earnings.

Loyal customers spend 33% more than new customers. The more brands invest in long-term relationships, the more loyalty they will earn, and the more social currency they will build. That is, the more often consumers will speak positively of the brand. In the Future of Retail, it is social currency that will propel businesses forward and increase ROI. Retailers who invest in relationships and target conversations, increase their sales by 50%‚ without increasing their marketing budget. It’s a no brainer. Brands and retailers need to learn what their customers care about, then invest in building connections and conversations that foster kinship, instead of advertising the hell out of a product.

Meanwhile, 89% of consumers will jump straight into the arms of a competitor when they have a negative experience. With all the tools they need to play the field, consumers can easily find the right product at the right price. No longer must consumers accept a sub-par shopping experience. As beholders of the power, they can hold out for the right brand experience and the most valuable relationship—even more reason to shift the focus and invest in courting the customer.


Let’s evolve the notion of “path to purchase.”

The new model of retail demands we think of the customer journey in a new way—and the customer as separate from his/her purchase. Whether there is a transaction or not, the customer experience should feel less like a path to purchase and more like a journey to relationship. Today’s technology allows brands to court the customer like never before. To learn what she likes and what she does not like—share stories that inspire her and be there for her when she needs something. It’s a lot less like selling, and a lot more like dating. The retailer’s objective is no longer to make a single sale, but instead, to ignite and foster a long-term relationship.

Retail09Retail Study: Anthropologie
The store concept (both online and in-store) caters to a very specific shopper, they know their customer well and they invest in creating an experience that will resonate with her on every level. Instead of strictly selling, Anthropologie inspires and learns about its shoppers, and with that deeper level of understanding, they curate an experience she cares about and build a relationship that is meaningful to her. While other brands shell out marketing dollars, Senk creates an experience that exceeds expectations. He says, “We don’t spend money on messages­—we invest in execution.” A smart philosophy that has shoppers swooning over Anthropologie whether online or in-store.

Our customers are our friends, and what we do is never, ever, ever about selling to them.

Glee Senk

President of Anthropology

Consumers expect to be courted, not sold to.

Every touch point along the consumer’s journey is an opportunity to build a relationship. Where, when, how, and how often brands interact with each customer should be thoughtful and meaningful to her—and what is said should give her exactly what she needs in the moment. Get to know the customer and execute from that insight, rather than blindly inserting fancy technology and tactics that may end up hindering the experience. It’s important to remember that, like dating, too many calls are just as bad as too few.

Retail10Retail Study: Sephora
Sephora’s Beauty Insider program makes it fun and easy to purchase make-up and learn expert applications and techniques. The brand uses Kat Von D. as a spokesperson to connect with make-up enthusiasts about the latest trends and how to achieve them. And the “VIB” club offers videos, coupons, tips, and membership perks to help Sephora build a lasting and valuable relationship with customers. With over two million Facebook fans and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, Sephora has built a community of engaged members by investing in

Sharing turns into shopping.

To go after the single sale and skimp on the relationship is to miss out on an entire community of customers and future transactions. The stronger the relationship with the customer, the more likely she is to spend her social currency on you. And when she spends social currency on you, she amplifies her experience and feeling to a community you may otherwise never reach. All of that talking and sharing turns into shopping, and then into sales.

A new economy demands a new approach.

Retail11It is bold to tell brands and retailers to make the purchase secondary and invest in relationships first, but it also makes good business sense. Because those relationships build social currency, and social currency will pay off in actual currency now and down the road.

Retail12Retail Study: Apple & Burberry
When apple was days away from launching the iPhone 5S, they teamed up with Burberry to capture and stream the highly anticipated Burberry fall fashion show. The partnership connected consumers all over the world around the latest in fashion and technology at once. Consumer’s minds were opened to a heightened experience made possible by both brands.

An average consumer has now been enabled to create some of the most brilliant content…so we thought it was just incredibly revolutionary and how could we not help do something innovative on using the runway?

Angela Ahrendts

Burberry CEO

Let’s rethink the value chain.

In this kinship economy brands, retailers, and manufacturers need to add value–and to add value, they need to work together, not against each other.

To be successful in courting vs. selling, both retailer and manufacturer need to put the consumer at the center of every engagement strategy and communication tactic. It means recognizing that the long-standing power struggle between retailers and manufacturers is over. It’s the power of the consumer that matters. To meet consumer demand, retailers and manufacturers need to design a distribution process that centers around the consumer, instead of each party’s individual agenda. Robin Lewis says, “a better-managed, high-tech-driven, transparent, seamlessly integrated, rapid response and totally controlled value chain, directly connected and instantaneously responsive to consumers (in fact driven by consumers), is a win-win twenty-first century process.” Easier said than done. The value chain needs to be entirely rethought. There is no choice but for retailers and manufacturers to co-conspire in service to a shared objective. Collaborate to bring every customer the experience she wants, when she wants it. Then foster a relationship that brings value to HER.

In this journey to a relationship, it’s about courting your customer, not selling to them.

Here are a few tips.

When the perspective shifts from selling to courting–the brand experience comes to life, consumers’ hearts are won, social currency is earned, and more products are sold. In this new model, brands, retailers, and manufacturers must first create an experience true and meaningful to the consumer, then master the art of dating to secure long-term relationships. Whether a brand, retailer, or manufacturer, take a look at these tips for courting your customer.


About the authors.

alfredoAlfredo Muccino
Alfredo has been recognized by some of the world’s most prestigious design organizations. He has received awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Western Art Directors Club, the Society of Publication Design, the Society of Business Communicators, American Corporate Identity, and many others. Over the years, he has worked on significant brand strategy assignments and major product launches for companies such as Ask, Intuit, LSI, Microsoft, Seagate, Sony, Plantronics, and Visa.

EmilyEmily Buchholtz
Emily Buchholtz is a Brand Strategist at Liquid Agency. In her career, she has worked as a Journalist and Strategist to lead research projects, craft engaging brand stories and design brand and content strategies. She enjoys helping brands connect with their audiences through print, web, video and experience design. She has worked with a broad range of clients, including TriMet, NEEA, Caltech University, Wend Magazine and Nike. At Liquid Agency she uncovers strategic opportunities to share and evolve brand ideas and experiences.

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