Euromonitor International

An interview with global retail industry expert Michelle Grant on the rise of mobile commerce, the evolution of the brick and mortar store and why personalization must be a C-level strategic priority.

What will consumer shopping patterns look like in 2025? How much will brick and mortar shopping revenue increase in the next three years? How are marketplaces disrupting global commerce? 

These are the questions on the desk of Michelle Grant, head of retailing at Euromonitor International. With quotes in the Finacial Times, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal, Michelle is one of the world’s foremost experts in macro retail trends.

Amidst chatter around Walmart’s acquisition of Bonobos and the largest e-commerce deal in history, we chatted with Michelle about the rapidly changing retail landscape and the pace of disruption due to the smartphone. Naturally, we also discussed the evolving customer journey and why personalization must be a C-level priority in order to drive a cohesive customer experience.

Michelle grant

Dynamic Yield: With Amazon’s stock at all-time highs and brick and mortar stores closing rapidly, the threat to retail feels existential. Is this hyperbole or will the retail landscape look markedly different in a decade or so?  

Michelle Grant: I believe it is a bit hyperbolic. From 2015-2021, we expect total retail sales will grow about 11%. Store based sales will grow a total of 4% while online retail growth will be 80%. But store based sales growth is on top of a much higher number.

It is easy to get caught up in specific huge retailers who are struggling. However, there are a lot of store-based retailers such as grocery discounters and value brands like TJ Maxx flying under the radar. Additionally, we’ve even seen online players like Bonobos and Warby Parker go offline. Even Amazon is experimenting with brick and mortar stores.

Ultimately, if you understand how a physical store fits into your strategy and you can attract people to the store, they will come and shop with you.

DY: How has the volume of traffic shifting to mobile web and apps affected macro e-commerce strategy for retailers?   

MG: Well it starts with a sobering truth. Mobile is where a majority of the traffic is coming from but not where the sales are. So if a retailer can drive even incremental increases in mobile conversions, it will have a huge impact on revenue.

We see a clear pattern- if a consumer researches your product and is served a poor mobile experience, they don’t convert. They go home and open a million tabs on their phone or computer and you lose the sale to a competitor.

It’s a real conundrum- retailers aren’t tech companies. They are experts at buying low and selling high. So when mobile took off, a lot of retailers didn’t know how to respond. They essentially took their desktop experience and shrunk it.

This has to change. People fundamentally engage with the mobile web differently than they do on a desktop. Retailers have to think strategically about how mobile influences all customer touchpoints, not just transactions. People use their phones at all stages along the customer journey and often while they are standing in a store. Simply put, more and more purchases every day are influenced by what is in your pocket.

DY: So are we underestimating the magnitude of the mobile shift? 

MG:Well here is something that really surprised me. U.S. Census Data shows that more households are accessing the internet solely through the mobile web. The phenomenon is not just limited to TV; people are REALLY cutting the cord., including to land-based internet access. 15% of households in the United States with a household income greater than $100K only use the internet on their phone, up from 6% in 2013.

We see this leapfrog to mobile in emerging markets but to see the transformation happening in the United States is wild. And with 5G coming and bigger phones becoming the norm, expect this trend to continue.

DY: Nearly every retailer seems to be focused on personalization. What is personalization anyway?

MG: Personalization is the ability to customize the customer experience by incorporating individual shoppers’ preferences.

DY: Who should be responsible for personalization at a retailer? Does it need to be a C-level priority?

MG: First off, it is vital to realize that having a 1:1 relationship with customers is the key to keeping their loyalty. When you approach personalization with that lens, personalization needs to come from the top down. Personalization impacts every facet of the online and in-store experience and only a C-level executive has all these touchpoints in her purview.

If personalization is deployed poorly, it can backfire and be creepy. Or it can be irrelevant. I don’t want to buy a single gift for niece or nephew and suddenly be bombarded by kid’s stuff- it’s an annoying experience and could permanently turn me off to a brand.

Tactically, the chief marketing officer, head of customer experience or chief digital officer should own personalization. These folks have the correct digital background, technical skills and influence to successfully implement personalization across an organization.

DY: After personalization, machine learning is the scorching buzzword in retail? How does machine learning tangibly impact retail and how will its application evolve? 

MG: A ton of machine learning is already happening behind the scenes. The first application was recommendation engines powered by machine learning but we’re seeing new applications arise by the day. Kohl’s CEO Kevin Mansell spoke about the company using machine learning to effectively fulfill omnichannel orders, lowering cost per online order.

With all the data inherently generated in e-commerce, machine learning can directly be applied to reducing returns, shipping items faster and more efficiently merchandising stores.

Machine learning will grow faster than we realize and everything above could well be standard practice in 3-5 years. If the machines make more accurate predictions than humans, the investment will pay for itself.

DY: What will be the most exciting developments in retail in the years ahead? 

MG: For me, this all rests on what the next big platform is for commerce after mobile devices. As voice and image technology becomes embedded in our lives, everything could become a shopping platform. Alexa may only be the beginning.

The Internet of Things has the potential to literally bring stores everywhere. Again Amazon is on the cutting edge here with Amazon Dash but we’re only scratching the surface.

However, there are even larger questions that could fundamentally shape retail. How will consumer behavior shape up when there are all these options? Predicting these types of changes in consumer sentiment given the pace of innovation is an exhilarating task.

How will people transact when you can shop without thinking?