The ‘Retail Apocalypse’ is Ragnarök, Not End of Days
Every day there are claims made in the media across the world that physical retail is heading toward a final and irreversible apocalypse. And yet, we’re also seeing some of the most innovative and customer-friendly reinterpretation of the retail experience that has ever existed. So clearly, the reports of retail’s total demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Rather than apocalypse, there’s actually a similar but crucially different concept that may hit the mark more accurately. From Wikipedia, here’s the description of the Norse legend of Ragnarök:
“A series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated.”
“Major figures” from the retail world have found themselves in an enormous battle for their future, and many haven't managed to avoid their fate. However, the world that's emerging after they're gone is stronger for both customers and the brands that have managed to navigate this tumultuous period, in ways that are soon becoming the new normal.
Let’s look at how we ended up here, the nature of the dying order, and the lesson that successful retailers are learning and deploying to be part of what comes next.
Physical Retail Should Complement
There's a natural cadence to retail trends. Commoditized goods head toward scale, but most people will still reminisce about a preferred human interaction with a skilled butcher that knew your name and weekly order by heart — especially over the plastic-wrapped, cold, sterile experience of the supermarket.
Online has gotten better and faster at delivering a more personalized and useful experience, while offline tried to get better at simulating it. However, in doing so, it often loses some of the real strengths of the smaller outlets that came before them.
Many retailers stopped hiring real experts, and substituted them with commoditized sales people. Despite setting up spaces to sometimes resemble what came before, they couldn’t really escape the huge corporate reality of their experience.
Now, what do you expect to happen if you dilute the most important advantages that physical stores have over their online counterparts? And meanwhile, they're invading the physical space with a perfect refinement of the personal experience around your most important interactions with their own stores.
Experience is Everything
For your most important interactions with your most valuable customers, an offline meeting with real experts is almost irreplaceable. Instead, retailers seem to be failing because of institutional issues. They're not planning for a change or shift around shopping habits — they're not ready for the coming recreation of their world.
Meanwhile, experimentation with store types, and their relationship to online, has never been more active or diverse. The mistake people make is looking at only one channel instead of the full omnichannel customer experience.
The real questions they should be asking are how customers can be tracked from offline to online and back again. And what role should each channel play?
The apocalypse of some retailers will leave the industry itself as a phoenix from the flames. It’s more Ragnarök — a ritual of rebirth — than the end of days for retail. As technology eats the world, every industry will have to go through this harsh experience. Those that survive may count themselves lucky to have taken their turn quickly.
Glenn Shoosmith is the CEO of BookingBug, a specialist in online booking systems.
Related story: How to Survive the Retail Apocalypse