Retailers’ Post-Holidays Search for the Holy Grail

After a good holiday season, retailers are looking to balance online shopping with in-store convenience.

When it comes to shopping at big retailers today, it’s all about online. Well, almost all.

With the holidays push behind them, retailers are looking for lessons to glean from a better-than-average season in 2019. Through the early part of the season, more people shopped and spent more on average, and in all, many analysts are projecting total holiday spending at $730 billion or so.

Among the highlights, the use of mobile devices hit a new record, with 75% of shoppers using their phones to research products, compare prices, or make purchases. That’s a faster shift than anticipated, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. “Mobile requires a whole different set of technology for retail leaders to be aware of,” he says, noting that the customer experience and tech investments required on mobile are different from e-commerce broadly.

But beyond mobile, the recognition that people are still going to stores in sizable numbers stood out this past holiday. To capitalize on that, experts say, retailers can’t just be in one channel anymore; they need to be both digital and physical. That’s part of the reason why companies that started as pure-play digital retailers, like UNTUCKit, are increasingly opening physical stores.

What’s more, while Amazon and Walmart may be leading the way in getting products to consumers fast, no retailer has been able to establish an easy, seamless way to send back unwanted items. “Customers value home delivery; they don’t value returns by mail,” says Rowley. In many ways, figuring that part out is the holy grail of convenience shopping for retailers.

But, in the meantime, experts say the best thing retailers can do is continue to improve the in-store experience for customers. Shoppers are going to stores with a specific purpose in mind, so the retailers who can best understand who their customer is, how they shop, and what they want will win. With store sales falling and labor costs rising, there’s a talent issue at play as well, with retailers needing to figure out how to increase productivity per employee while also keeping them engaged and motivated enough to give shoppers the best experience possible.

“Being a customer-centric retail organization has never been more crucial,” says Denise Kramp, Korn Ferry senior client partner and North American retail sector leader.