Brandon Rael: “The main attraction to go to a retail store is to interact and engage with another human being”

Today we speak with Brandon Rael, Operations and Strategy Innovations Leader. An experienced retail strategy and operations expert who operates as a senior liaison at the intersection of the business, operations, technology, digital, and marketing worlds.

With an innate understanding of the retail market landscape and the evolving consumer mindset, Brandon is a key partner for companies, as they evolve, adapt and grow more effectively. Brandon has an exceptional track record of success in delivering significant business improvements, driving meaningful return on investments, inspiring organizational change, all with a holistic view of the changing business landscape. Most recently, Brandon has driven retail industry thought leadership, white papers, social media blogging, content marketing, led retail conference speaking engagements and has joined the prestigious RetailWire Braintrust community.

Hello Brandon. Please, could you assess the current context of the retail sector?  

When executed properly, retail magic will always be a blend of the art and sciences, where the customer should expect new content, across multiple shopping platforms. Retail is evolving into the theater of all that is new and relevant in our daily lives. Experiential retail has become the latest industry trend, as its all-encompassing business model connects the physical, digital, creative, and art worlds. The retail showroom remains extremely relevant, as the 2018 U.S. Bureau Census statistics show that over 90% of all purchases are still made in the store. Even with all the ease and comfort of shopping on digital platforms, physical retail space is evolving into a story telling medium, where the lines between the creative art and commerce worlds are blurring.

So, you are sure that physical retail won´t disappear…

No, absolutely not. A physical storefront, showroom, pop up, store within a store, flea market, farmers market, or merely a physical presence matters more than ever. Considering that we are now relentlessly digitally connected, human beings by nature are social beings, and enjoy in-person experiences, engaging with other people and creating new memories. Offline experiences are even more important than ever and act as a natural extension of the brand. Every engagement between your brand and the customers will translate to sales across every channel. Doug Stephens captured where things are evolving to with this quote: With the vast majority of our daily and weekly needs simply coming to us as necessary, the role and purpose of retail space will no longer be principally to sell products. Rather, these spaces will act as living, breathing physical portals into brand and product experiences.

Retail magic will always be a blend of the art and sciences

What are phyisical retail pros and cons VS online retail?

Online retail is now spanning across mobile, desktops, with both native apps, the Amazon/Google/Walmart marketplaces, and with Instagram’s shop now capabilites, the lines between social and commerce are blurring. Its all about entertainment and engagement. The digital experiences have to and should drive engagement to the physical storefronts, where approximately 90% of all retail sales transactions take place. The digital and phyiscal worlds are intertwined and its the same customer shopping across all of these brand’s platforms. The experiences should be on brand, consistent engaging, and keep the customer coming back for more.

In this context, what role does technology play in retail?

The flashiest and most innovative technologies certainly get all the attention, as well as the hype. Technology is simply an enabler to help enhance the overall customer experience, not the reason why customers will do business with you. The bottom line is that the market forces and the customers are the most significant disruptors. They are now empowered, connected and informed. It’s up to the retailers and brands to keep pace with them. The overwhelming narrative is that customers want a “seamless” and “frictionless” experience, powered by technology. In some shopping segments, particularly convenience and repeat buys this makes sense. It’s not about the technology in the other more experiential and lifestyle segments. The overall experience and how the brands interact and meet the customers expectations matter more than any technological innovation.

Over 90% of all purchases are still made in the store

Highlights a current technology or innovation that you believe is setting a trend.

Purpose-led machine learning, AI and advanced analytics could certainly help drive enhanced personalization. However, there isn’t a proverbial switch companies could turn on to become a personalization powerhouse. There are far more cultural and change management structures that need to be in place before retailers could truly benefit from driving personalization strategies. It’s very much a crawl/walk/run strategy and several companies get it right. Consumers enjoy the occasional personalized email, an Instagram ad post, and even a text as long as it’s not creepy or overwhelming and they have the ability to opt in or out. Sephora is an example of a company that has a customer-obsessed strategy. They spend the time to know their consumers by providing the products and services that meet their needs. Amazon and Google are continually leveraging ML/AI. Bottom line, these technologies are in their infancy and evolving.

What does it take for a store to work? Is there a magic recipe?

The demand for empowered, educated and incentivized store associates or brand ambassadors in retail is greater than ever. Consumers will be leveraging their smart phone devices 24/7, yet the main attraction to go to a retail store is to interact and engage with another human being. Perhaps in the grab and go convenience space, the Amazon Go smart phone model rules. Yet, in the high touch arenas, such as lifestyle, beauty, home furnishings, health, fashion and luxury calls for brand ambassadors to help drive increased conversions, average unit retail sales, and units per transaction. All of which contribute to additional revenues and margin improvement. So the question remains, why not empower your store associates with their own smart phone/tablets solutions to help the front line team to be on a more level playing ground as the customers?

The digital experiences have to and should drive engagement to the physical storefronts

How is customer loyalty achieved?

We are entering into a new age of retail, where sustainable relationships, experiential storytelling, and an optimized customer experience have all become critical differentiators for brands. The race is on for retailers to evolve, diversify their offerings, and provide a compelling reason for customers to remain loyal. With any transformative initiatives, there is an inherent level of risk. However, these are the types of strategic risks that retail organizations are increasingly willing to take to stay relevant, innovative and ahead of the competition.

How do you see the future of retail?

The blending of the art and sciences has always been a fundamental part of retail, and now the shift to a experiential curated model only cements this fact. This evolution is a welcome development and proves that physical retail is as relevant and meaningful as ever. As these changes extend beyond the cosmopolitan areas, customers will enjoy new experiences, a place to connect with their local community, enjoy a curated story, and an escape from all the digital connectiveness. The marriage of the art and retail universes is only beginning, and we should expect plenty of other retailers to drive a greater level of experimentation.