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How Retail’s Managing a ‘Massive, Massive’ Shift to Mobile and Digital

The fashion industry has faced no shortage of hiccups in recent months, but the digital revolution shows no signs of slowing.

In fact, the rise of online commerce and growing reliance on technology could be the keys to strengthening relationships with shoppers. At the final day of seminars for NRF’s Retail Big Show on Friday, experts spoke to the dramatic impact of digital platforms on consumer engagement for brands of all sizes.

“This shock to the retail system was profound,” Karin Tracy, head of industry in the retail fashion and luxury sectors for Facebook, said, adding that “98 percent of consumers are trying new shopping behaviors, new brands, new places to shop and of course, new shopping methods” amid the pandemic.

What’s more, “all this disruption is actually happening right in the palm of people’s hands on their mobile phones,” she said. A full two-fifths of the $60 billion spent online over the week of Black Friday took place via smartphones, she added. Shoppers have quickly adapted to buying via their mobile devices, and have even found some upsides—namely the ability to shop at all hours. Tracy said that $2.7 billion was spent on mobile between 10pm and 2am on Cyber Monday.

“And this online behavior is transferring to offline,” she added. Omnichannel services like curbside pickup and buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) have become important to consumers, many of whom remain anxious about in-store shopping. Offering these options has actually led to 32 percent higher online sales growth for retailers, Tracy said.

“Whatever notions retailers and fashion brands had about digital sales being a sideline to your main retail business, it’s over,” she added. “It’s a…matter of survival—online shopping has gone mainstream, and more profoundly, the attitudes and expectations that shoppers have with how a product is merchandised to them has gone online as well.”

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“The consumer is absolutely in the driver’s seat,” echoed Jessica Murphy, co-founder and chief customer officer of fit analytics sizing solution True Fit. “There’s never been more competition for shared wallet than there is today.”

Shoppers’ mass migration online has opened up new opportunities, but it has also turned up the heat on brands that are jockeying for a shot at their pocketbooks. According to Murphy, “80 to 90 percent of shoppers are what we call ‘one and dones’—you see them once, then you never see them again,” she said. In a virtual world with seemingly limitless options, creating value and driving loyalty are paramount.

True Fit focuses on helping its brand clients develop metrics for the creation of “longitudinal value,” she added, like revisit and repurchase rates that denote a true emotional connection with consumers. The company’s AI-driven tools optimize fit selection for shoppers while promoting brand discovery, giving them the confidence to buy clothes they can’t touch or try-on first in person—a must for those who aren’t digital natives.

“This shift from Covid is real—retailers are now serving the mainstream shopper versus the seasoned digital shopper,” Murphy said. The demand for personalized experiences online has grown across all age groups, particularly 65-plus shoppers who may be turning to the web for the first time.

The shift in consumer appetites has illuminated some of the downsides to virtual shopping, giving brands an opportunity to pivot and make their experiences more convenient and seamless. “We’ve spent the better part of 2020 planning for 2021 with our retailers,” Murphy said, “and really focusing in on roadmaps that aim to avoid friction.”

The concept of endless aisle, which provides limitless selection, “sometimes has the opposite effect of what we want,” she said by way of example. Variety is good, but too much noise can be overwhelming, she pointed out. Instead, retailers should aim to “really curate that experience to create a relevant interaction between the consumer and the products they’re looking at.”

Retailers should also heed the evidence that mobile is likely to become a very important channel for them moving forward—and optimize their capabilities. “We now have some partners where 80 percent of their transactions are happening on mobile and that is a massive, massive shift,” she said. Some have “had to completely alter their roadmaps,” she added, to create “a frictionless experience through this through the phone that’s very different than on desktop.”

Kevin Jiang, president of international business for China’s JD.com, said that e-commerce is surging in the country at large, with massive growth in younger consumer groups and those living in more remote areas. The growth of online shopping was driven, in the pandemic’s early days, by a need for necessities like food and home goods, and has morphed into a desire for retail pick-me-ups and luxury products.

The accelerated move online to marketplaces like JD.com allows brands to tell their stories effectively through photos and videos, even as brick-and-mortar traffic continues to lag, Jiang said. “We have stores across China which are open, where the inventory is not moving,” he added.

Now, China’s retailers are now faced with the challenge of digitizing their inventory so they can better visualize what they have on hand and sell more efficiently to shoppers across the world’s most populous country. “It’s time that we start to think about how to integrate offline inventory with online inventory,” he said. Luxury brands have fared well in China over the past six months, and some of these international labels are pioneering the inventory integration movement, he added. Combining available products into one pot actually gives shoppers access to a greater selection, including exclusives and limited collections, he said.