Busting The Big Myths Of Retail: The Real Reasons Retailers Are Missing The Mark

If you believe what you've heard in this year’s earnings calls, retailers are losing every dollar of business to Amazon. Are they? No. They’re losing some, but the estimates on Amazon’s pure, non-marketplace growth don’t even come close to every other retailer’s declines. Amazon's growth is a symptom of - not the reason for – retailers’ problems. Retailers in decline are also losing sales to the many multi-channel retailers that are growing and actually - *GASP* - opening stores, as well as new market entrants, including brands selling direct.

The other big industry myth: online sales are adding to total retail sales growth more than in-store sales. The facts: last year, retail sales grew $128B excluding items like fuel and autos. Online sales added a healthy $53B, but in-store sales added an even healthier $75B. The result of these myths: some retailers believe they should close stores and compete more online to resolve issues. But this strategy actually makes their problems worse, and closing stores is likely the first step to ultimately closing the doors.

Retailers struggling today suffer from brand problems, not store problems. They have failed on five main fronts. Specifically, they:

  • Don’t focus on solving customer pain points. The ability win in today’s environment is just a matter removing customer pain points to improve experiences along the shopping journey. Unfortunately, many retail teams we speak to make the issue too complicated, and aren’t even aligned on what their customer pain points are.
  • Ignore the need to differentiate their store experiences. Unlike digital touchpoints, in-store experiences haven’t changed substantively in over 100 years. Retailers who have failed at hyper-adapting to meet ever-changing customer expectations are now finding those same customers hyper-abandoning their brands.
  • Use opinions - rather than data - to drive strategy. Many veteran retail executives think they understand retail based on past experiences. But customer’s expectations are changing so rapidly, that what worked even 5 years ago matters very little today. Making strategic decisions without data is like driving a car wearing a blindfold. As W. Edwards Deming famously once stated “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
  • Think product assortments matter more than customer experiences. Digitally-savvy consumers know they can choose from any one of a hundred retailers for an item, or at least a similar one. So the more important question becomes which retailer has given the customer a significant reason to shop with them.
  • Allow bureaucracy and culture that stifles their organization.  Retail executives often have trouble getting out of their own way. They obsess about what the competition is doing instead of focusing on their own business, while failing to remove the cultural and organizational barriars slowing down true digital transformation.

Forrester has several resources for retailers looking to start down this journey of understanding, recovery, and growth:

  1. Listen to the downloadable podcast conversation about this topic that can also be shared with others: Forrester’s Podcast “The Retailer’s Dilemma – A Brick-And-Mortar Or Brand Problem (Or Both)?”
  2. Watch the webinar that outlines today’s retail challenges with transformation, including what and why certain tech investment strategies makes sense: Forrester Webinar “NRF Overview: The Most Important Retail Tech To Focus On For 2017”
  3. Read the report that provides a deep view of what leading retailers are investing in to transform and win, serve, and retain today’s retail consumer: Forrester’s Report “Top Retail Tech to Watch in 2017”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how retailers overcome pitfalls, and thrive. Feel free to leave comments down below, share with others, or contact me here to have a 1x1 discussion!


Merging physical and digital worlds

Brendan, great post. Part of differentiating on experience is merging the digital experience into the in-store. Our recent consumer research showed that only 35% of consumers want to talk to a salesperson. Over 77% are using their mobile device while shopping in a store. Retailers should strive to offer the answers that consumers are looking for on their phones through digital experience in a store - or arm their folks with digital tablets to get the answers for their customers. Keeps them away from the competitive info they might find on their own phones.

I appreciate Witcher's

I appreciate Witcher's article, but it oversimplifies what is going on.

Malls WILL be declining for the foreseeable future. Millennials (and Gen Z) have abandoned mall culture and think shopping online is just as natural and often better. Income polarization is shrinking the middle class. Amazon Prime has locked in a lot of wealthier shoppers. Businesses will not invest in store experiences when traffic is down, perpetuating the mall’s decline. What's left is promotion, which further erodes brand equity.

Off mall stores ARE growing, but primarily the value plays — Dollar stores, Rack/Off-Fifth, Ross/TJs, Walmart/Target, etc. Also growing is the re-purposing of malls to be other types of community gathering and office places.

The disruption is real. For the moment, brand and experience are in retreat.

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