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2014: The Year of Customer Disruption


Last week, I looked back at 2013 and how the biggest single trend in retail IT was customers using connective technology to take control of the shopping experience. This week, I look forward to the new year of 2014, when the biggest single trend in retail IT will be customer disruption.

Customer disruption goes beyond customers simply taking control of the shopping experience. Mobile devices, social media, constant connectivity, and a blurring of the lines between once distinct customer service “channels” is creating a situation where retailers can no longer offers their customers the same traditional customer experience they have been offering for the past century. Let’s look at three distinct ways customer disruption will change retail as we know it in 2014.

Channel? What’s a Channel?

“Omni-channel” retailing, where the consumer encounters a seamless and sequential customer experience across all channels, is being disrupted into a new retail model where the idea of distinct channels has become obsolete. Thanks to smartphones, tablets, and wearable connected devices like Google Glass and Samsung SmartWatch, customers can and do simultaneously interact with retailers via three to four channels at once.

It’s no longer a case of a customer looking up a product on their mobile device and later buying it in the store, but a case of a customer receiving a texted personalized discount for a product they reserved online and are paying for in the store via tablet-based checkout. Retailers must align all channels in real time to the point they act as one unified platform.

Social Media Lets Customers Join the Team

Social media is disrupting how retailers develop customer relationships. One of the most disruptive aspects of what has come to be known as “social retailing” is how social media erases the boundary between the customer and the retailer. Social media allows customers to take an active role in product development and assortment selection, become evangelists who play a critical (and usually unpaid) role in marketing and branding efforts, and create an ongoing, real-time (and also usually unpaid) feedback mechanism that is vastly larger and more diverse than any traditional focus group.

Of course, making customers an extension of the enterprise through social media can have its downside, such as when disappointed consumers vent their frustrations in public online forums. Social listening is a disruptive practice where the retailer (or a contracted third party) monitors all avenues of social media for negative or positive comments on a brand or a chain, allowing it to quickly identify and resolve any problems.

A Store without Walls

At least in the short term, customer disruption is not changing the primacy of the physical store as the profit center. What customer disruption is changing is the nature of the store. In addition to the previously described dissipation of the store as a distinct channel, the store is now serving as a physical repository of all a retailer’s offerings. Whether through “endless aisle” systems that eliminate in-store inventory limitations or augmented reality product displays visible via Google Glass, retailers are removing the walls of the store and opening it to a new and unlimited realm of customer experience-enhancing possibilities.

[Editor’s Note: From May 7-9, Chain Store Age is offering the Customer Disruption Conference at the Sofitel Hotel in San Francisco Bay, Calif. Join us at this immersive event where the best and brightest will share the latest ideas, practices, technology and solutions enabling retailers to break through the noise and win the engagement revolution. Visit for more details.]

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