Once upon a time, not too long ago, around 2017, the secret for brick-and-mortar success was experiential marketing. This was the marketing mantra from Nike stores to Westin Hotels. Movie theaters offered dinners, drinks in the theater itself along with extra-comfortable seating. Brick-and-mortar establishments created “experiential destinations.” Shopping or staying was an “experiential event.”

At the same time, brick-and-mortar also coveted online strategies to compete with Amazon. An online presence was essential. Car dealerships transferred their selling approaches and their look and feel to websites. Wal-Mart used its purchase of jet.com as a base for its aggressive foray into online retailing. Jet.com has disappeared. Wal-Mart’s Wal-Mart+ is the new Amazon Prime fighter.

Now, due to coronavirus, we are, like Alice, stepping through the looking glass, where everything is reversed. In Lewis Carroll’s, Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice goes through a mirror into a world where, just like a mirror’s reflection, all things are inverted.

Instead of putting its store online, Wal-Mart just announced that it is reimaging and reimagining its stores again. To improve the in-store experience, the goal is now to put its website in-store. According to USA Today, the idea behind the new store design is to make your in-store Wal-Mart shopping experience seamless and omni-channel. Wal-Mart’s chief customer officer told the newspaper that Wal-Mart wants to “… make it easy for customers to be able to toggle between their physical experiences that are in the store and their digital journeys.”

The new store design eliminates wandering and browsing. Customers can be in and out of the store faster. With the design more consistent with how categories appear on its website, Wal-Mart is focused on customers’ better usage of time.

Fast Company magazine points out that the heart of the redesign is navigation. Now, at Wal-Mart, navigating the website will be transferred to the brick-and-mortar store. Speaking with Fast Company, Wal-Mart indicated that customers tend to walk around the stores with a phone in their hand. The redesign is about integration so customers see something on the phone and look up to see it in front of them. Using the Wal-Mart app in the store will point customers in the right direction to the right aisle.

Wal-Mart’s corporate PR says that the focus of the redesign is “a digitally enabled shopping experience… end-to-end digital navigation that guides customers throughout their journeys.” Additionally, we learn that for Wal-Mart, “by creating a system that acknowledges our app navigation from beginning to end, we create an optimized omni-experience for both customers and associates.” Encouraging customers to use the app at the navigation kiosks not only makes the experience better but also alerts customers to “… rollbacks and other promotional product information that’s most relevant to them.”

To hasten the shopping process further and to limit human contact, “Stores will include self-checkout kiosks as well as contactless payment solutions, including Wal-Mart pay, to limit contact between associates and customers. Select locations will also have Scan & Go to help customers manage their checkout directly.’

This was bound to happen. Omni-channel approaches have been a hot topic in recent years. Many purveyors of goods and services want to ensure that customers use all shopping options available. However, in the majority of cases, it is the brick-and-mortar store transferred to the online site. The Wal-Mart move is turning the tables on this approach.

With Americans spending $107 billion more online compare to this same time last year, the concept of making the website take the lead for in-store design is a bold and critical new step in retailing. Using how we navigate to change how we shop is innovative.

Navigation is the process of ascertaining one’s position and planning and following a route. Shopping is the purchase of goods from stores. Grocery stores are shopping venues that optimize purchasing by steering customers to the perimeters and then to the center, allowing for comparison-shopping and serendipitous purchases. Grocery store shopping is not currently designed to sync with online shopping behaviors or customized apps. Wal-Mart’s approach is the mirror image reverse: its experience is not about shopping: it is about navigation. In essence, Wal-Mart’s navigation eliminates the need for strolling the aisles by using how we shop on its app. Traditional shopping up and down the aisles is out. Pedestrian orienteering is in, with an app replacing a map and a compass.

McKinsey & Co., the global consultancy, released a series of interviews with some of its partners on the future of retail. Here is what one of the interviewees said:

“It almost makes me think we’re in the foothills of what omni-channel-driven convenience will look like… and that there’ll be some big innovations that scale now that consumer expectations have been reset. That’s where we’ll start to see some more innovative models and some more interesting partnerships—as players try to think about new ways to meet those needs.

If you look at how many more consumers are using e-commerce, such as using curbside pickup and buying online and picking up in-store, most of them like it and plan to stick with it after the pandemic. So you have the consumer need. And retailers have done a good job of standing up things … to be able to meet that need.

The next challenge is figuring out how to do it as a more seamless experience—in a way that’s not temporary but that meets these emerging needs around convenience and speed, especially.”

As one analyst reported in a review of Wal-Mart, “ In our view retail, health care, artificial intelligence and personalization are a critical part of the future of retail. Shopper and personal interaction measurement enabled by technology will link these spheres.”

Wal-Mart is already bringing the future of retailing into being for its 160 million weekly shoppers. We will undoubtedly see more establishments approaching brick-and-mortar retail in this way. Instead of bringing the store to life online, this new ideal is bringing the app to life in-store. This reversed world of shopping, where what we do online is how we shop in-store may be the way to revitalize retail. Alice’s world of front-to-back, back-to-front, mirrored reflection may be retail’s new reality.

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