Alibaba yet again smashed its Singles’ Day shopping record last month, posting sales totalling US$17.8 billion in just 24 hours. The items sold included 100,000 cars – not something people usually buy online.
When e-commerce is making such headlines, what is the future of retail? It’s a question that matters to anyone aspiring to a career in digital, global brands, or real estate – or if you simply want to open your own shop.
I recently invited a group of Hong Kong executives to debate this topic. They represented some of our largest shopping malls, several top global brands and major online retailers – a powerful gathering that generated some surprising insights.
The biggest revelation was that online and offline retailers are not necessarily the deadly rivals they are often assumed to be. Rather, each has its complementary place in the retail ecosystem.
Consumers value the convenience, savings and wide choice of brands they get from online shopping. But they also seek out human contact, authentic experience and local craftsmanship – the very things that traditional shops offer.
Still, there’s no room for complacency. “Cookie-cutter” shops that fail to stand out will struggle to compete. Bricks-and-mortar stores will need to engage customers through outstanding service, unique products and local culture.
In this new world, even offline outlets will need strong digital capabilities. They will need to mine customer data for ideas that inspire new products and experiences, and to engage customers in creative ways through social media. To do that, they will need to draw on the young “digital natives” within their ranks – and bring in experienced digital talent from outside.
This will not be possible without the strong support of their CEOs, of course. While we found overwhelming agreement that digital will result in new business models, the number of executives who named their CEOs as digital sponsors was not so high (one-fifth lower).
Brands, too, will need to entice customers both online and offline. When so much is available via e-commerce, a visit to a flagship store has to become a uniquely immersive experience.
Digital giants like Alibaba, which owns the SCMP, will still make headlines, but will increasingly become data companies – understanding the needs and behaviours of billions of consumers, and passing that insight on to brands and retailers, both online and offline.
For people with vision and imagination, all of this means exciting retail career opportunities. If you understand the needs of customers – and cater for them both online and offline – the future will be yours.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Attention to retail.