What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is especially true when it comes to technology and the evolving landscape of omnichannel retail for brick-and-mortar retailers.
Once feared as an existential threat to brick-and-mortar retail, the Internet now provides retailers with tools to evolve, redefine themselves, improve engagement with customers and build their brands.
What shoppers really want is experience and relationships – with people and brands. Technology is simply another tool retailers can employ to augment and deepen these relationships and experiences.
My belief stems from what I witnessed during my 20-year tenure in the exhibition industry. Trade show floors and retail stores are parallel experiences. I consider the trade show and event floor to be a form of a pop-up retail store. Both require advertising and promotion to attract attendees. Both require skilled personnel who engage customers face-to-face to assist, inform and sell products and services. Both are physically immersive and both are most effective when they are housed within larger, umbrella structures with other similar environments—either a convention center or an open-air shopping center.
In recent years, both industries’ perceptions have evolved. They have learned that technology isn’t the enemy—it’s an ally, an integrated tool that can be leveraged to strengthen their positions.
I firmly believe that for those of us savvy enough to embrace the new tools in front of us, the future is rosy. In 2009, the exhibition industry was in the tank. Net square footage of floor space was in decline and attendance was in free-fall. Even CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the event we all look at to see what the next cool tech gadget is going to be, experienced a 22% decrease in attendance.
Media from The New York Times to The Washington Post reported that attendance was down and the industry in decline. There was widespread fear inside the industry that face-to-face was going to be replaced by virtual exhibitions. Why would anyone go through the trouble and expense to attend a trade show in person when they could “attend” the show via their computer? Was this shift a permanent change that would impact the exhibitions industry forever? A multi-billion dollar industry held its breath and waited to see how quickly its ship was going to sink.
When the economy improved, the opposite occurred: That floundering boat righted itself and resumed a growth course. In fact, a report issued May 29 of this year by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (the organization that tracks the overall health of the exhibition industry) announced the industry’s 15th-consecutive quarter of growth. That’s right, 15 consecutive quarters of growth.
What is even more interesting is the status of the virtual trade show, which has not emerged as a stand-alone entity. As of yet, no strictly online trade show has gained enough traction to threaten a live exhibition.
This isn’t to say that the online expo hasn’t thrived. It has, more so as a supplement to the traditional exhibition (think: the exhibition version of omnichannel). Prior to arrival at a trade show, attendees use the Internet to plan their visits. They register online and gather information via the show website and online floor plan. They use email and social media to connect with the suppliers they plan to visit.
The at-show navigational and informational apps used by trade shows that merge the convenience of online with the tactility of in-person engagement parallel the emerging in-store apps retailers such as Walmart are testing. For example, Walmart shoppers can use the retailer’s app to search products, read reviews, scan products in-store, make shopping lists, browse local coupons, track orders, share products via email, locate items within Walmart stores by aisle and check in-store merchandise stock.
From my perspective, retailers are on a great course, transitioning yesterday’s perceived threats into today’s strengths. The future is omnichannel. Like the trade show industry, retailers need to continue to integrate and embrace technology that makes their customers’ shopping experience easy and memorable.
Let’s continue down the strong road we’re on. With omnichannel, retailers are creating 24/7 relationships that give customers what they want, when they want it and how they want it. But even more importantly, retailers are delivering a great in-store experience as the anchor to it all.