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Why LEK Consulting’s Consumer Head Says it’s Time to Turn Down the Retail ‘Noise’

Retailers are always striving to draw customers in: with a compelling brand story, a product that solves a known pain point, or customer service that goes above and beyond.

But as digitally-native brands continue to reinvent e-commerce, it’s up to brands large and small to meet customers where they are instead of pulling them in.

Consumer sector specialist Noor Abdel-Samed, a managing director at global strategy consulting firm L.E.K., spoke to Sourcing Journal about the ways customer centricity has changed in the last decade—and the ways it hasn’t changed a bit. 

Sourcing Journal: What does it mean to build a customer-centric culture?

Noor Abdel-Samed: I think of it as a two-part statement: customer-centric, and also channel agnostic. The argument for decades has been ‘how do we get customers to shop the way we want, in our stores—getting customers to buy the SKUs and packaging we think is most beneficial to our retail store.’ Think of endcaps, or displays that guide them through the store the ‘right’ way. In the last 10 years, customers have realized they don’t want to be dictated to any longer. They want to shop the way they want to shop in store and online. In turn, retailers no longer need to have them rigidly walk through the store the same way every time. Now, it’s meeting customers wherever they happen to be: curbside, in store, same-day delivery, or whatever that might mean.

SJ: How important is the culture piece compared to technology?

NAS: I think culture is exceptionally important from a changing and transforming perspective. Tech is relatively straightforward. When you say ‘I want to launch curbside pickup,’ discrete steps have to happen, but you can deploy the technology step by step. The more difficult part is, you have to believe this is a good way for customers to shop you, and then have to get your in-store associates and your executives excited about it. It can be tough to make people believe a solution will bring new shoppers in who wouldn’t necessarily shop at your store before. If they don’t believe that it’s an effective solution, then it isn’t effective. I think Walmart is a great example: they had one of their best years on record because of curbside pickup, and they solved a customer pain point, which lead to them finding people who wouldn’t have shopped at Walmart at all for groceries. That’s the power of the culture—being willing to serve the customers how they want.

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SJ: Everyone talks about ‘the new consumer,’ but in what ways are shoppers the same as they always have been?

NAS: In many ways, nothing’s changed. Customers want a good experience, a good price and want to feel like their needs are being met. The meaningful difference comes from the ease of switching stores and ease of access to alternative options. Years ago, if you didn’t like the way a store did business, you would go to other stores in town or even drive an hour to the next town and your next option. Now there are a million, digitally-native, vertical brands. I don’t think anything has really changed in the consumer, but they’ve awakened to the power they have to vote with their wallets. People aren’t going to drive 45 minutes to next available option anymore

SJ: You talk about identifying ‘quick wins.’ What areas lend themselves to generating results in a short timeframe?

NAS: Many retailers already have a mobile app, they just don’t necessarily know what they’re doing with it—so something like mobile coupons or offers, pushing those paper offers digitally, and prioritizing based on purchase history, that’s something that can be rolled out over months instead of years. If you have strong e-commerce, it makes sense to make shipping to store an option. Finding space for quick wins is saying ‘based on this tool’s performance, and what we have, what are our nearest ‘ins’ and opportunities.’ See what you already have as a capability to find that space to draw from.

SJ: There are a lot of buzzwords in the industry. It seems like every brand and retailer is chasing speed, personalization and low cost. But from a consumer standpoint, what are retailers undervaluing now?

NAS: Brands don’t see the value of not creating too much noise. When I think of what a lot of brands do, the number of emails they send consumers can be one or two emails per day, I think of categories like furniture or apparel—I don’t need to hear from you every day. It’s not going to compel me to make a purchase. What brands undervalue is the benefit of quiet, saving the really impactful communications for you. If you’re emailing every day, you’re emailing everyone every day. What is the incremental value of that, for the 1 percent of people it may be relevant to, when the rest might drop you in spam or delete you because doesn’t have value anymore? Crispness and quiet is very undervalued.

SJ: What does winning look like today and how is it different from five or 10 years ago?

NAS: Honestly, I don’t think winning has ever changed…it’s always been about taking share of competitors. What has changed is the huge increase in the number of tools and battlegrounds available. Where will you leverage your tools most effectively to win the hearts and minds of consumers? Before the battleground was direct mail and your signage in-store. Those things haven’t changed, but now there are email and social impressions and mass media campaigns. And there’s more content around the tools that are available. Brands and retailers doing the most effective job are using those in concert—not just 40 emails per day, but consistent and relevant messaging in the inbox, in store, on the train. Successful retailers layer and reinforce personalized messaging instead of causing a deluge to everyone.