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The landscape of retail and ecommerce changes at the blink of an eye—and if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that those who aren’t ready for change will be left behind.
While many preached omnichannel in retail and ecommerce, few walked the walk.
Changes across the past two years have rocked retail, ecommerce, and digital marketing industries. From privacy and political changes to the pandemic, our world looks quite different from what it looked like in 2018. We had trends on the horizon, but events over the last few years catapulted them from “nice-to-have” to “necessary” faster than anyone could have imagined.
In this article from our 2021 interview series, I got to exchange with someone who has seen so many changes over his extensive career—and knows how brands should be dealing with them.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Walton, Target’s former VP Store of the Future, has over two decades of retail experience under his belt. Three years ago, he co-founded Omni Talk (formerly Red Archer Retail), a retail blog and resource hub for brands and retailers looking to stay on the pulse of changes within the industry. His favorite topic? How brands and retailers can provide a truly omnichannel customer experience.
I asked Chris more about his experience in the retail industry, and why he started Omni Talk.
Chris Walton: Omni Talk was born out of my partner’s (Anne Mezzenga) and my experience heading up Target’s Store of the Future work. We saw an opportunity for a frank and fresh dialogue on omnichannel retailing from the perspective of real retailers who have lived it in practice, as opposed to journalists or pundits who may or may not have ever worked on a retail shop floor, let alone know how to transform a retail operation from an omnichannel perspective.
That last point is important too because oftentimes we are asked if we are consultants. We are not consultants.
Anne and I are just two people who love thinking about how retail can be better. Our motto is “Follow your interests, and you’ll always be interested.” That interest is how we help educate the market on what matters and what doesn’t, without getting caught up in the shiny pennies of the latest and greatest tech or what some retailer wants the public to believe through a smartly crafted and worded press release.
We call it like it is and aren’t afraid to call B.S. when we see it, which is what sets us apart.
Omnichannel retailing: Risks, rewards, and mistakes
With the experience that Chris has in the industry, he had some great advice for newcomers to the industry.
You’ve spent nearly 20 years in retail, from Vice President at Target, to being on the board of advisors for Xenia Retail, contributing to respected publications like Forbes, Industry Dive, and more throughout the years. If you could go back to when you started and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be? Is that advice different from what you’d give to someone just starting out in retail today?
Chris Walton: If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have taken more risks in my 20s. I would have followed my motto of following your interests earlier before things like kids, a marriage, and a mortgage come into play.
My advice to someone just starting out in retail would be similar—don’t be afraid to blaze new trails. No one knows how to ride the reversed engineered bicycle of omnichannel retailing yet despite what many pundits will tell you. Everyone is learning how to do it at the same time, which for the youth of today provides a backdrop where one’s inexperience and energy can be quite a powerful asset.
What is one mistake that you see a lot of ecommerce retailers making? On the flip side, what’s one best practice you wish more retailers were doing?
The one mistake I see ecommerce retailers making is how they are grappling with the decision to open up stores to further augment their brands. First, they aren’t asking themselves the tough question, like “Am I a brand or am I a retailer?” While the lines are blurring between the two, when it comes to whether one should open up a physical retail shop, the answer may still lie in having a direct relationship online but a wholesale relationship in the physical world.
Second, even for the ecommerce players that I would classify as retailers and who want to go into stores, oftentimes they go into the physical world making the same mistakes as legacy bricks-and-mortar retailers, i.e. setting their store operations up as siloed operations rather than investing in technology that fully bridges the data gap between the two worlds.
Privacy and pandemics: How to be adaptable despite industry disruption
As it is, the digital industry is one that changes so quickly. Throw privacy changes and global pandemics into the mix, and you’ve got an industry that forces brands and retailers to adapt very quickly.
With his vast experience in omnichannel retail, I wanted to know how he adapted his content in Omni Talk during the pandemic, and what some of the significant changes he saw for retailers.
I am on record as saying that COVID-19 was the greatest experimentation hall pass in the history of retail. For us at Omni Talk, our brand reputation exploded this past year because everything we had been writing about and predicting for the previous two years started to come true because retailers were forced to experiment with new ways of doing business.
You saw the emergence of things like curbside pickup, social commerce, third-party marketplaces, microfulfillment, contactless payments, and even checkout-free computer vision operations, à la Amazon Go, at a massive scale. The best of which are all held together by the principles and underpinnings of real-time data capture and cloud computing. They seem commonplace now, but two years ago there were many people arguing vehemently against many of these concepts on social media and inside of the big legacy retailers themselves.
Now retailers are starting to get the punchline to the joke that the word “store” no longer means what it connotes, a “store of inventory,” and that there are so many other ways their brands can interact within the flow of their consumers’ lives and to the mutual benefit of all involved.
It’s true that several developing trends Chris mentioned already had a place in the pre-pandemic times, but they accelerated much faster than expected in 2020 and 2021. In fact, while online grocery shopping was in development, it exploded over the past two years.
Curbside pickup also grew during the pandemic, with the number of households using the service growing by 33% over 2020.
These were not new innovations in the ecommerce and retail industries, but they were adopted at a higher rate due to the pandemic, and are here to stay in post-pandemic times. Ecommerce and retail stores who were quick to respond to consumer needs during the pandemic won overall.
COVID-19 was far from the only thing disrupting the ecommerce industry over the past few years. Privacy updates from Google, Facebook, and Apple have been changing what data marketers have access to. Between Google removing third-party cookies, Apple’s iOS 14 update removing Facebook ad tracking for Apple users, and Apple’s iOS 15 update killing open rates for Apple Mail users, marketers have to be creative in the way they measure engagement and target their messages.
Regarding these privacy updates, Chris was optimistic that it would just improve customer experience across the board, shining a light on brands and retailers that created great content.
I am actually quite excited by all the changes in this realm because it puts more of an onus on the content producers to make good content and to find new alternative ways to reach and interact with their prospective customers. The cream will still rise to the top.Chris Walton, Omni Talk
Chris Walton: Will metrics like open rates settle out at a different level? Will it be harder to judge the health and engagement of one’s subscriber base over time? Yes to both.
But that just means the content producers, like we are at Omni Talk, will have to work harder to earn the actual click and retailers will have to work harder to identify who and what is actually producing the final sale (by way of shopper recency and frequency data), whether in email, text, or on social media.
To follow up: what would you advise merchants do to future-proof their marketing strategies? Do you think it’s better to remain reactive and nimble in the face of these kinds of changes?
Chris Walton: 100%, you have to remain nimble and adaptive. That is the name of the game in omnichannel retailing, regardless of all the changes happening right now. But that is also nothing new.
Our job as marketers has always been to meet our customers’ needs, and if new systems of data tracking are developing in response to consumer privacy concerns or anything else, then it is the marketer’s job to adapt to these concerns and find new ways of reaching their customers.
For this reason, I think we will also see a huge explosion in text-based commerce. The field is ripe for experimentation, and oftentimes it is a better experience than the old world of email—or at least one could see how it eventually could be.
Although email is a tried-and-true trusted channel for ecommerce, SMS does afford immediacy as a marketing channel. SMS was a star channel throughout 2020, with 378% more sends over 2019, and conversion rates increasing by 102%.
Merchants have been paying attention. In the first half of 2021, click rates for SMS have already eclipsed those of 2020, and conversion rate is already at 92% of the average hit last year—and we’re only heading into the holiday season. Ecommerce merchants would be wise to heed Chris’ advice and add SMS to your marketing strategies.