Blog / Aug. 22

“Store, The Sequel”: Understanding the Customer Journey and Embracing Technology to Keep Stores Relevant in the Digital Age


Early on a muggy August morning as I Ubered through SoHo, staring at the storefronts of well-known brands, I considered why so many of them were struggling for sales growth. There are exceptions of course–cult brands with an almost indestructible following–but even some of those are finding it hard to keep their stores profitable and relevant, and to stop losing sales to Ecommerce pure plays. While I remember a time before Ecommerce, much of my own shopping today is done online. So I pondered: What was missing from my own in-store experiences, and what would it take to get me back in the mall more often?

My destination that morning was the Crosby Street Hotel where Aptos was hosting retailers at the “Store: The Sequel” event that was focused on keeping stores relevant through innovation. After brief introductions, Nikki Baird of Retail Systems Research kicked things off with her views of what was wrong with stores now and how retailers could save them. Nikki gave examples of retailers who went beyond just selling products to delivering services to customers that could only be experienced in a physical space, such asTommy Bahama’s restaurants, Petsmart’s grooming centers and the Macy’s Brow Bar, to name a few.

Nikki’s key themes and recommendations: Differentiate your brand by making it relevant, be smart about your store inventory, invest in your associates so they deliver amazing (and on brand) service to customers in your stores, and do your best to create unique experiences for your customers.

Differentiate your brand, invest in your associates and create unique experiences for your customers.

John Hnanicek, the CIO of Vitamin Shoppe, was up next. He recounted the story of Project Evolve–their multi-year strategic initiative to re-define the store experience. Project Evolve, which is completely customer centric, will provide their Health Enthusiasts (what VS calls their sales associates) with the tools and education required to engage their customers differently. After a thorough review of their customers’ journeys, VS prioritized areas of impact and are now focusing on three near-term projects: a Health Enthusiast App which will enable a more personalized conversation with customers, a customer-facing application including new loyalty features, and a redesign of their website. While John and the team have plans for other experience enhancements in the future, I think that these projects will deliver a big impact to Vitamin Shoppe customers and drive their loyalty to the brand.

John’s key themes and recommendations: Ensure corporate alignment on customer centricity; facilitate a conversation between the associates and customers; leverage the technologies you have, where possible; and enable agile development.

Align around customer centricity, facilitate customer-associate conversations and enable agile development.

The last presenter was Russ Ronchi, founder of F3G. F3G is a great digital agency that focuses on creating memorable customer experiences. While their roots are in sports marketing they have leveraged this experience for retail with much success. Russ has accompanied the team at True Religion on their quest to slow the customer down when they come into stores in order to really connect with the brand. The digital displays and Apple Watch solutions F3G developed enable the associates to help their customers find exactly what they are looking for regardless of where the product is.

Russ’ key themes and recommendations: Rethink the customer’s shopping journey, reduce transactional friction but increase customer enjoyment, and find ways to get technology to market quickly by leveraging your existing technology stack.

Rethink customers’ shopping journeys, reduce friction and leverage your existing technology stack.

To demonstrate how these ideas can manifest themselves in-store, we took a short walk to the True Religion SoHo store where we saw their technology in action and heard about how the associates have embraced the new tools.

While these types of transformations are not always simple, during the event we were reminded that retailers are in fact embracing innovative technology to deliver unique and memorable experiences to their customers. Feeling hopeful for the future of stores, I took a walk through SoHo for a little retail therapy and, in the process, reminded myself just how satisfying in-store shopping can be.