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How retailers can stretch less and mean more to customers

Lean times call for tighter focus and smart curation strategies. What better time to apply the lessons of the paradox of choice, which tells us customers can be overwhelmed with options and want less not more.

Augmented reality and machine learning make curation simple and fun, while your brand guides what you offer and what you don’t. The more single-minded your brand idea, the more sharply you can focus, the better you can curate and the tighter your inventory management. 

Presented with too much open-ended choice, a lot of people only really “want that one” or “more of what I (my peers) like but maybe just a bit different”. 

Something they can point to, copy or tweak without having to go to the trouble of inventing it from scratch, something not too out there, but with a bit of wow factor every now and then. So how can you give customers what they want, without making them work too hard, or fading into a sea of sameness?

Think of your brand as the ultimate “influencer” so you don’t have to borrow interest from someone more interesting. What’s your brand’s intriguing point of view that drives how you buy and what you select for customers, and ultimately attracts them to you? Yours may come from your founding belief, think family-owned Harris Farm and its community ethos. It may stem from your people, think Winning Appliances, a business where staff actually know what they’re talking about. Direct-to-consumer luxury brand Wardrobe.NYC fights waste in fashion, addressing the relentless design, production and consumption cycle endemic to the industry. Edited capsule collections, simply labelled ‘Tailored,’ ‘Denim,’ ‘Street,’ or ‘Sport,’ are sold as a complete core wardrobe for its urban minimalist members. 

Artificial intelligence helps retailers provide tailored recommendations without taxing customers too much. It becomes really smart and most useful when the technology works in service to your brand promise. Using algorithms based on their stated preferences and buying behaviour, shopping service Thread makes it easy for customers to “dress better in three three minutes,” reinforcing its positioning “Style simplified”. This may be less relevant while pyjamas and loungewear are in vogue, but people will eventually have to (re)learn to dress themselves again.

Retailers are employing visualisation techniques to help customers dream bigger with their products a natural part of the dreamscape. IKEA recently acquired augmented reality startup Geomagical Labs, the business responsible for a smartphone app that lets people capture 3D models of their rooms to furnish. It accelerates the customer journey from dreaming to doing. It’s also a great way to engage and even entertain housebound people in the current circumstances. From a brand perspective, the technology supports IKEA’s purpose to “create a better everyday life for the many people” and the passion to enhance life at home. Through the app, IKEA can inspire people not only to buy furniture, but create pockets of much-needed privacy and design space to breathe, in keeping with the Life at Home research themes of privacy and wellbeing.

Retailers that focus and prioritise through the lens of their brand have another advantage: they’re able to promise less, avoid spreading themselves too thinly and improve inventory management. US-based retailer used to promise “everything always in stock.”. This doesn’t directly serve the brand positioning of being a transformation partner, which curates all your fitness needs as an online retailer, community and content provider. High inventory levels put a strain on the company’s working capital, prompting it to take a more strategic approach to in-stock levels. The retailer moved to focusing more on goods that customers consistently wanted, using a tiering system to establish different service level parameters according to demand. As the brand already did so much to support them, customers could forgive a slightly longer wait on the off chance they ordered something they hardly ever needed.

When you apply brand management skills to managing expectations, you can exceed expectations without exceeding your capability. You don’t have to promise it all to keep customers happy. Ensure you have a clear brand promise and value proposition and focus on curating and delivering to that. 

Moensie Rossier is a strategy director at Principals.

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