“Brands can’t lord it over customers now. Before, it was about waving the flag of the brand. Now consumers are turning themselves into brands through social media. Gap doesn’t make you cool; you make Gap cool by choosing to wear it.”
Antonio Bertone, former marketing chief at Puma, speaking to Wired magazine, sums it up nicely. Over the past decade there has been a substantial and not so subtle power switch from brand to consumer, and it’s largely thanks to social media and the ease with which we can now compare and contrast brands online.
Sites like Asos and Xile Clothing, apps like Grabble and Comb, and the decision of stores like John Lewis and Selfridges and malls like Westfield to place their inventory online, not forgetting the contributions of Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat Pinterest and the fashion blogging community have turned the tables on the brands who once dictated who wore what, where and when.
In the dark ages of fashion it was a crime to be fat, thin, outsized, undersized, bow legged bald, bearded or unshaven, especially if you were female, but today we celebrate the cult of the individual.
Who can remember the front cover of Fatboyslim’s single “you’ve come a long way, baby”? “I’m #1, so why try harder?” It could be the motto for the modern consumer: you want to clothe me, furnish my house, make me dance, and take my money, then it’s you who will be making all the effort my friend, because me and my homies have more options than we have ever had before. Hipster, fashionista, Kardashian, Gaga, Borat, Brangelina or twerk-chic, there are few surprises out there anymore; the streets are patrolled by tribes of smartphone brandishing trendies, and nobody, not even Karl Lagerfeld, knows what is coming next.
If you can’t beat them, join them, the brands and shops are saying. It’s time for full disclosure; armed with their laptops and mobiles, shoppers browse at home rather than in-store, are no longer afraid to mix and match, and can find out in real time what their favourite celebs, musicians and role models are wearing. So how do you compete with that?
Omnichannel retail, is the answer. Omnichannel is a complex beast, but essentially it involves the integration of the services and conveniences that digital shopping can provide; home delivery, online checkout, price comparison, inventory checking, with the physical experience and excitement that only a trip to the mall can provide. To put it another way, omnichannel is where the worlds of clicks, and bricks, collide. Just don’t forget your smartphone.
In reality, online sales still only account for a small percentage of purchases made by consumers, about 1 in 10, but that figure is changing, and nowhere faster than in the UK. Mobile commerce is predicted to grow by 55 percent in the next five years, to around £20 billion, but 84% of shopping will still be done in-store, albeit by shoppers armed with information they have found online.
It is essential therefore, that malls and shopping centres can provide a shopping experience that exceeds consumer’s expectations. In order to do that, they need to understand their customers better than ever before, and serve them accordingly. Many have been slow to pick up on the fact that big data and disruptive tech was the way the market was headed, but now there is a world-wide scramble to make the mall more like Disneyworld, and less like Mall Cop: Blart 2!
John Lewis is running its own tech accelerator, JLabs, helping to nurture up and coming digital talent, providing £20k of funding up front and awarding £100k to the eventual winners, and no doubt hoping that they will choose to continue to partner with John Lewis going forward. Westfield malls, the Australian company who own the Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush retail centres, also have their own “Lab”, based out of San Francisco, which is developing services such as the pre-ordering of food at their mall’s top restaurants, same day delivery, click and collect and beacons which use radio frequency transmitters to direct personalised messages at shoppers as they walk into different stores. Their “searchable mall” project, an online database which aggregates product from 161 retailers who trade physically in their malls in Australia, has proved to be a big hit with shoppers, and shown what digitally integrated marketing can do.
And that’s just the thin end of the wedge. The world’s largest shopping districts are getting involved, from the US, where there are more than 110,000 malls and shopping centres, to Dubai, The Phillipines, Colombia, the UAE and Thailand, who are all home to larger shopping centres larger than the US can boast. In Dubai, construction has already begun on the biggest mall on the planet, in the world’s first climate controlled city, an 8 million sq. ft. behemoth constructed under a retractable glass dome, surrounded by a theme park, theatres, hotels and apartments.
And all of these destinations have one goal in common. Make the shopper the star of the show. Make their lives easier; bring the clothes they wish to try on to them, rather than making them queue for the changing rooms. Carry their shopping to the car for them. Play them videos, send them messages, find out what their favourite clothes and accessories are and send them money off coupons. Activate display screens as they stroll past. It’s all very futuristic; like Total Recall without the 3 breasted prostitutes.
The end goal remains the same, of course; to sell products to consumers, many of which they do not need and might never use. But when has that ever been the point of shopping. Ask any man, and they will tell you that shopping is about emptying your wallet and wasting your Saturday. Ask any woman, and they will tell you it’s about feeling great, (not just because of what you are doing to your man), and being pampered.
I’m joking of course! A lot of the ideas around MallTech are not new. Personalised shopping has been around for as long as anybody can remember, the Victorians excelled at it, but now it is accessible to everyone, not just the elite. There are very few elitist brands anymore; nowadays if somebody isn’t wearing Nike trainers, for example, it’s because they choose not to, rather than because they cannot afford them. We think this represents progress, and long may it continue!
Omnichannel is going to disrupt and democratise consumerism; we have the technology, we have the inclination, and now we have growing proof that it brings benefit to consumer, brand, and retail outlet. So what’s not to like. To those who argue that too much choice is a bad thing, we say, define too much choice?