Beyond the basics: how specialty retailers can stand out in the omnichannel age

(This post previously ran on Internet Retailer – view)

While Internet Retailer’s recent Omnichannel Report provides a valuable blue print on what retailers need to do to compete in the essentials of omnichannel retail, it fails to do much for specialty retailers looking to set themselves apart. This isn’t to say that nailing critical omnichannel experiences like buying online with in-store pick-up and returns aren’t important – they absolutely are. But today’s innovation is tomorrow’s table-stakes – anyone struggling to endure as Amazon eats the world knows that.

What’s more meaningful in creating a differentiated omnichannel experience is leaning into what sets your product and brand apart. Etailers that go beyond the basics and enhance their unique experiences will find not only higher conversion rates, but stronger loyalty. The question is where to start; after all, tactics that work for one retailer won’t assuredly work for another.

What follows are four categories in which omnichannel etailers can set themselves apart from the competition and satisfy increasingly empowered customers.

Expert consultation

We live in a world of optimized choices. From five-star brunch spots to socks and underwear designers laying claim to have reinvented, well, socks and underwear, the thirst for ‘the best’ looks like one that cannot be quenched. This culture of optimization has bolstered the value of the in-store consultant. In-store consultants are prized for their expertise, particularly in complex categories. That’s why online scheduling for their time has taken off in a broad range of categories, from fashion to consumer electronics.

Few do this better than Nordstrom. In a survival knife-fight with rumored acquirer Amazon, Nordstrom is wisely emphasizing areas where Amazon chooses not to complete – the personal (human) touch. Their online stylist booking experience is seamless. After a few simple questions on preferred location, recipient, and nature of the occasion, customers are offered a variety of appointment slots. Upon arrival at the store you’ll find a room styled with items just for you (or your intended). There’s no extra commission and no fumbling through sales racks. It’s a great option for someone who needs a little extra style help or just a great gift idea.

Your options for professional consultation abound. Need help with your new TV and sound system? Schedule a Geek Squad appointment with Best Buy. Struggling with the Four Cs of diamond buying? A Blue Nile consultant is standing by. By leveraging the webroom and the showroom, an online consultation experience pivots your site from direct commerce to lead generation, but the end result is still likely the desired one – a satisfied customer and a sale.

Customization

Perhaps one of the most impactful ways to develop brand affinity with your customers is to make them a participant. Product customization lets consumers connect with your brand in a unique way. No one does this better than Nike. Nike has been taking custom orders online for years, but their new “House of Innovation 000” flagship store on 5th avenue in NYC is a true exemplar. Not only can you customize your shoes, you can also collaborate with an on-site Nike Expert to find the right base shoe and then adorn it with a wide variety of options.

Other retailers are taking notice. Portland-based retailer Chrome has custom sewers on-site who can weave your favorite old jacket into a truly one-of-kind bag. From custom suits at Indochino to in-store eye exams with Warby Parker, you’ll find customization opportunities in several categories. In this example, the online experience acts as the bridge from the digital to the physical in merchandising the offering and enabling the appointment and store visit.

Product trial

Despite nearly two decades of incremental ecommerce enhancements, there’s still no replacing the tactile benefits of kicking the proverbial tires on a new product. The best etailers leverage webroom visits by creating unique experiences in their stories. Context is everything in specialty retail; something not lost on outdoor retailer Eddie Bauer. In a world where nearly everyone has a puffy jacket, Bauer needed to do something to set itself apart. Their flagship store in Bellevue Square includes a walk-in “Ice Box” to let consumers try on apparel in below freezing temperatures. It’s an experience that you cannot replicate on the web and reinforces their more aspirational First Ascent product line.

Look around and you’ll find outdoor and fitness retailers shine at product trialing. Select REI stores have mountain biking trails and climbing walls. Brooks Running’s flagship store in Seattle integrates stride analysis and treadmills as part of its sales process. Such experiences are great for high consideration purchases where field use is essential.

Special events

Do a quick review of today’s leading retailers and you’ll find more than just racks of apparel and products on the shelves – you’ll also increasingly find classes and special events. Classes and guided tours are relatively common place for outdoor retailers like REI, Patagonia, and Evo. The specialty nature of their gear makes occasion-creation a smart business move. Events also have another benefit, they create in-roads on establishing a lifestyle brand.

These days seemingly everyone wants to be a lifestyle brand. And why wouldn’t they? Done right, lifestyle brands command a premium in loyalty and valuation by tailoring their experiences to what their customers want to achieve. It’s more than creating great products, it’s helping your customer become the ultimate version of who they want to be. Those Instagram photos of your new GORE-TEX jacket will get far more likes with a Mt. Rainier summit shot in the background.

Canadian retailer Lululemon is taking it a step further. Not content to sell billions of dollars’ worth of yoga pants, Lululemon is currently experimenting with a paid membership program. The program, currently in beta in one market, offers consumers clothing, classes, and free express shipping. It’s an interesting experiment that not only helps drive recurring revenue, but also builds community. If Lululemon starts expanding to other markets, expect other retailers to take note.

To deliver on the promise of events, the digital experience again plays an essential role in merchandising the right events, to the right customer, at the right time. Location detection and relevance act as essential ingredients.

In conclusion

Retail innovation comes in waves. The first wave drove out some traditional retailers as pure plays like Amazon and Blue Nile disrupted traditional retail. The second wave gave rise to omnichannel retail – survivors made tremendous in-store enhancements as the patterns of consumer expectation became clear. Subscription commerce gave rise to the third wave and understandably so. With recurring revenue and attractive lifetime value metrics what’s not to love?

What does the fourth wave have in store? It’s more than online orders and in-store pickups. Consumers want more from their retail experiences and businesses need it. With Amazon Prime just a few clicks away, retailers have to create differentiated experiences that break down the constraints of traditional channels and consider not only what customers are thinking, feeling, and doing across channels and touchpoints, but also who they aspire to be.

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