This article originally appeared on Total Retail's sister site, Women in Retail Leadership Circle.
From Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s in 1955 to Pop-Tarts to microwaves, consumers have long placed a high value on convenience. And why shouldn’t we? Time is the greatest equalizer, no matter your position in the work world or your wealth. It's our most precious commodity. We all have the same amount of it, as well as the choice on how we spend this currency.
In its simplest definition, convenience is often measured by time and effort. In our current time-starved culture, this definition is continually expanding and changing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was a 12 percent decline in time customers spent shopping for consumer goods from 2004-2014. Expectations, attitudes and the sheer definition of convenience has changed rapidly in just the last 10 years. We presently live in an on-demand and always-on society, where digital is center stage. Consumers want speed, but they also want ease and simplicity.
Popular on-demand options such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, Amazon Prime Now and Lyft have achieved mass popularity in a very short time. Millennials will soon be reaching their peak consumption years, and convenience will continue to be an important metric for retailers to achieve. Many traditional retailers, including Target and Walmart, which have long operated large-format stores, are paying close attention to shifting consumer preferences, testing smaller store formats and curbside pickup, such as Walmart Grocery and Kroger ClickList. Walmart recently announced deployment of pickup towers in 700 stores, which serve as personal vending machines for customers to retrieve their online orders. Amazon continues to test contact-less checkout at its Go stores, and Kroger’s Scan, Bag, Go initiative is working to address customer desire for fast and simple experiences. And the fast-evolving customer expectation of same-day or next-day delivery can’t be ignored, the pace set by Amazon.
The mobile phone, of course, is the great enabler in this new paradigm, truly driving retail sales and serving as the foundation in the consumer search for answers and products. The next looming hurdle is utilization of the mountains of data being collected to figure out true personalization, again with the goal of speed and low effort (i.e., convenience). Devices embedded with voice assistants will continue to evolve, and their use will become second nature in the name of convenience and improved consumer experiences with products.
Consumers now not only want it fast, they also want the delivery to be free. The future points towards consumers who will soon be demanding even more control over their delivery times and dates, allowing them not to be tethered to a location awaiting a delivery. In a first volley, Domino’s recently began testing delivery to 150,000 "hotspot" locations without traditional addresses, such as a park or beach, using a smartphone. Hospitals, notorious for poor cafeteria selections with limited operational hours, are now setting up Uber Eats delivery locations as a convenience to better serve hungry long-term patients. And companies such as Filld and Booster deliver gas to your car wherever you are.
Retailers, in the race to earn and keep customer loyalty, must still compete on price, selection and quality, but now convenience must also be added to the winning formula.
Linda Mihalick is the senior director, Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.