The biggest threat to retailers? Better retailers

illustration of a person buying something on a phone

About a year ago I needed to replace a dead TV on short notice. I glibly added “buy TV” to my checklist of errands and stopped into the closest retailer. How long could this possibly take? Half hour tops?

I found the TV section quickly, but navigating the choices wasn’t so simple. The sets were organized by brand, not by size or feature set. Comparing products required memorizing or taking photos of the tiny feature cards and running back and forth between brand areas. TVs that appeared identical had wildly different prices. I found a model on their website that sounded just right, but they didn’t have it in store to try out.

My quick trip lasted well over an hour. And I left without a TV. I vowed never to buy from that retailer again.

My story is hardly unique. Spend some time perusing the Twitter feeds of major retailers and you’ll find no shortage of disappointed customers venting about subpar brand experience. There is also no shortage of trade news espousing the death of brick-and-mortar retail. Personally, I believe this gloom and doom is clickbait hyperbole. Still, those retailers that fail to innovate are not long for this world.

Ecommerce isn’t the only threat to retailers. The other big threat is superior retailers. This is true in every segment, from department stores to specialty retailers to quick-serve restaurants and beyond. There is always someone innovating and most of those innovations amount to a better customer experience. Newer brands have a late-mover advantage and can be nimbler. This intensifies the pressure on the largest brands to adapt.

So, while brands bolster their investments in online offerings, how can they ensure their customers get the best retail experience? Here are the five things we at tms (formerly The Marketing Store) believe retailers need to do to compete today:

Be connected

Retailers don’t get to dictate how, when or where customers interact with their brands. Customers are likely to use multiple channels and will expect those channels to talk to each other providing a seamless connected experience. Your apps, kiosks, websites, social channels, in-store merchandising and POS systems should be telling the same connected story, sharing data where appropriate.

Be personal

Track and analyze every possible data point from every transaction. For known customers, use explicit information to personalize the experience to their demonstrated preferences. For unidentified customers, use data to make intelligent inferences and anticipate needs and preferences. Tailor experiences accordingly. Test, learn, hone, repeat.

Be empowering

Your customers have varying preferences. Some want to interact with your mobile app. Some want a self-service kiosk. Others want a human. Have all the bases covered and allow the customer to experience the environment on their terms.

Be frictionless

As the technology powering retail advances, you can and should question the necessity of everything you’ve come to assume. Analyze every touchpoint in the customer journey. Interrogate every single action a customer must take. Use design thinking to ruthlessly streamline every step, or leverage technology to eliminate those steps entirely.

Be inviting

The best retailers achieve a vibe that causes us to feel something powerful. They endear us to the brand and make the retail environment a place that we are delighted to spend time in. This is the result of myriad factors, some of which include cleanliness, flow, organization, selection, lighting, ambient décor, music and most of all, staff. The humans you trust to interact with your valued customers are the face and personality of the brand. You must select them carefully, train them with extreme deliberation, measure and reward appropriately, and retain the best of the best.

Retailers need to be able to take their brand promise and turn it into a reality. That’s the essence of a great retail experience. Because if you’re not creating that fantastic, frictionless shopping experience, your competitors certainly are.

Brian Barthelt is managing director of retail experience at tms (formerly The Marketing Store). He has over 20 years of experience delivering digital and retail marketing solutions for Fortune 500 brands. Brian also leads a team of 60 retail marketing specialists who manage all in-restaurant messaging for McDonald’s USA.

Originally published on Adweek here.