Now that the dust has settled from the storm that is SXSW, I've had the chance to reflect on some of the key themes coming out of this year’s event. The retail industry in particular made waves with a higher profile presence than usual, with companies like Walmart, Patagonia, Away, lululemon, and Amazon.com just several of the brands in attendance.
As an Austin, Texas-based company, SXSW is right in Bazaarvoice's backyard, and we were lucky enough to have direct access to the show. Below is what we found most telling for the retail industry in the near term.
Brands Are Still Experimenting With Experiential
Experiential retail has certainly been a dominant trend in recent months, especially with all the buzz around Hudson Yards. SXSW demonstrated that this trend isn't dissipating anytime soon. However, there’s no single model of success for executing a unique shopping experience, especially when it comes to brick-and-mortar stores. From pop-up shops at a concert to an Instagram-worthy art museum to, as one panelist teased, an in-store waterslide, the opportunities to stand out in today’s retail environment are limitless.
It’s clear that brands are placing a heavier focus on not just making the shopping experience convenient, but also enjoyable and unique. For example, Will Williams, director of retail experience and store operations at luggage brand Away, shared that the brand is deliberately thoughtful and intentional when putting together an “experience.” Alongside its suitcases and bags are other curated accessories that inspire travel. Some would say a waterslide may be over the top, but subtle tweaks to the shopping journey can go a long way in resonating with modern consumers and encouraging brand loyalty.
The Human Side of Retail
This year’s SXSW festival largely reflected the rapid pace of technology innovation, but the keynote speakers continued to urge audiences to remember that actual human beings are at the center of every one of these efforts and the larger respective brand. The speakers cautioned attendees about leaning too much on tools, including artificial intelligence (AI), consumer data, virtual reality or any other trending technology, and overlooking connecting with customers in authentic, relevant ways.
To excel in the retail landscape, brands should show their human side. For example, we heard from Ronit Bhargava, best-selling author of "Likeonomics," on nonobvious trends. Bhargava discussed “back-storytelling,” which is when an organization takes people behind the scenes of their brand and showcases origin stories and the employees who make the company what it is. This type of strategy displays a more human side to an organization, and has the dual purpose of inspiring loyalty from customers and employees alike.
We also heard from Macy’s about how it demonstrates its human side through developing the Macy’s Style Crew, a group of employees that serve as global ambassadors sharing personalized, authentic content about personal style and Macy’s products via their own social pages. Through its Style Crew, Macy’s has shifted from being a "company selling to people" to "people selling to people."
Maintaining a human touch is an important tactic for brands striving to maintain consumer trust. The industry has been so focused on implementing technology, which adds value when done right, but retail players need to remember that consumers crave an authentic connection with brands.
Incorporating Ethics Into Brand Identity
In recent years, we've heard the term “brand activism” more and more. Companies are making a concerted effort to communicate a stance on political, social or societal issues. This shift has happened in large part because consumers in younger generations are choosing to spend their money and time based on the brands that align best with their values; this trend has only accelerated in the retail industry.
Toy company GoldieBlox, for example, has made it publicly known that it aims to disrupt gender stereotypes. At SXSW, GoldieBlox Founder Debbie Sterling explained that the company was created to answer the question, “Why aren’t there more women in engineering?” Foursquare, which launched at SXSW 10 years ago, discussed how ethics has come into play in its located data business. Foursquare has provided ethics training to its 300 employees, and started an ethics committee to allow for open discussion about how its technology is being used (or misused).
While many companies are now asking similar questions to address consumers’ concerns, it's reassuring to hear of brands that are building ethics into the creation and foundation of their business.
As I rest up and reflect on a busy week in Austin, I'm excited to see how the retail industry continues to evolve throughout 2019. The year ahead will show how brands pair thoughtful technology with authentic, connection-building experiences. The future of retail isn’t bleak; it’s undergoing a transformation to become even more tailored to what we, as consumers, are craving.
Kerry Brunelle is the senior communications manager, North America at Bazaarvoice, a digital marketing agency with a shopper network connecting retailers to their customers.
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