Five Years of Change For Retail Marketers

September 2013 marked the fifth anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers, the investment firm failure that is generally viewed as the beginning of the wheels coming off the wagon, economically speaking. While it's not clear whether we're out of the woods with the economy (especially with looming debt ceilings and government shutdowns), for most consumers life has improved in the past five years.

For retail marketers, the past five years have been tough. Not only did the economy tank in a way not seen since the 1930s, other changes in consumer behaviors and mindsets have had a major impact on brick-and-mortar stores. Here is a look at some of the biggest changes, and how they influenced retail.

  • Apple's original iPhone first launched in mid-2007; but its impact was not really apparent until a year or so later when HTC launched its own Android-based smartphone. Add to that the introduction of tablets, which have decimated the sales of desktop PCs and even laptops, and it's clear that the computing world will never be the same. For retailers, this change alone has shaken the industry to the core. Showrooming is the newest threat, brought on by shoppers' instant in-store access to pricing data in real-time via their smartphones. Stores like Best Buy were transformed overnight into showrooms for Amazon and other online sellers. At the same time, mobile access has allowed marketers to connect more directly with shoppers before the actual trip to the store.
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    Recessions have typically driven increases in store brand purchases, but not at the level seen this time around. In addition, post-recession behavior has typically been for consumers to return to national brands when things got better, but this time more shoppers are sticking with private label products. Several factors are at play here: a greater acceptance of private label as “real” products, better-quality store brands, multi-tier store brand programs, and a new frugality mindset from consumers, especially upper income shoppers. The opportunity for retailers is to jump on this wagon quickly. There has never been a better time for private label growth. All that is needed is a strong program that offers good value (i.e., more than just cheap food) and supports the overall brand proposition. Nothing helps to drive loyalty as much as a quality product that isn’t available anywhere else.

  • The rise of social media has turned the world of retail -- both online and offline -- upside down. In mid-2008, Facebook surpassed MySpace as the most-visited social media site and soon became the most visited Web site, period. Twitter, FourSquare, Yelp, and Pinterest have had varying levels of success, but all have left their impression on retail by allowing consumers to communicate quickly and effortlessly about shopping and deals. “Haul videos” were the rage for a while with the younger set, showing wares brought home after shopping sprees.

  • Social media led to Big Data, where attempts to capture and measure activity across the Web led to the creation of datasets too large for typical software tools to manage. The combination of online and offline tracking methods have given some marketers the ability to predict shopper behavior with astonishing accuracy. The downside is the cost of the analytical tools and expertise needed to mine these vast stores of data.

The past five years have been chock full of both challenges and opportunities for retail marketers. The next five are likely to see more of the same. Bertrand Russell once stated: "It’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." That has never been truer than it is today.

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