What Canada’s retail survivors should do next

As major brands make plans to leave the country, those that remain can’t risk complacency. Here’s three ideas for innovation

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Target may be among the most high-profile exits in the Canadian retail sector recently, but many of the ones who remain must feel as though they have a target on their backs.

There’s an ugly list making the rounds on the Internet, which tries to catalog all the firms who have decided, at one point or another, that our home and native land is not the place where products fly off the shelves. As Sony, Mexx and Jacob join Zellers and other long-forgotten names in our shopping malls, there’s an implication that being a merchant in Canada may not be worth all the hassle.

I hate to say it, but retailers here have been warned about the dangers for a long time. I remember sitting in an event a few years ago, surrounded by CIOs from some of the best-known store chains in the world. An analyst from IDC was talking about how aggressive retailers in the U.S. are in their use of data, how they were optimizing all the major touchpoints where customers could interact and the concern that our retailers weren’t keeping up. That’s one of the reasons we spent so much of last year talking about the omni-channel, particularly as it relates to retail firms.

Of course, “accelerate your omni-channel efforts” is not a very helpful suggestion as major retailers pull out of Canada, and it’s even possible that those left standing will risk feeling complacent. That may be the most dangerous attitude of all. Instead, consider the following ideas to cement long-term Canadian retail success:

Stop shopping for customer data: It has become all too standard — but still kind of creepy — when you try to pay for something and the cashier asks for your phone number, postal code, e-mail address or some combination. Unless you ask why, explanations typically aren’t given. By now we all know we may be giving them permission to send us unsolicited messages, and in some cases it may come across like an attempt to keep selling just as they’re about to make a sale. Successful retailers will figure out a way to provide more value in exchange for that data. For example, why not, instead of issuing a standard receipt, cashiers hand back something includes a customized recommendation of what a customer might want to look for next time, based on a history of their purchases and a demonstrated knowledge of their preferred brands’ upcoming products?

Think “experience” instead of mere “e-commerce”: Some retailers in Canada were incredibly slow to offer online transactions, but “transactions” don’t just mean allowing customers to make purchases or research products. There’s a lot more retailers could do with online content to educate and excite retailers about the promise their brand will help deliver, for instance. Some have invested in staff to set up social media accounts to monitor for mentions of their name or promote sales, but deep conversations via Twitter or Facebook are rare, and often not well-integrated into their official Web sites. There’s a huge opportunity to be a Canadian retail pioneer in how to communicate with customers on mobile devices and all the wearable devices that are just starting to emerge.

Embrace new additions to the omni-channel: The Internet of Things may not be well-understood by some retailers, but it’s very much on the mind of those making appliances, thermostats and all kind of other products. As IP connectivity allows these objects to provide or exchange information, it means the stores that show them off will need to be completely re-imagined, and offering ways for consumers to walk in off the street with their own devices and apps and interact with what once might have merely sat on a shelf.

It’s probably not going to get any easier to be a retailer in Canada, but it doesn’t have to be a slow march towards doom. When people walk into a store, they’re likely hopeful they’ll find something they need or want. Retailers need the right mix of technology and strategy to approach their customers the same way.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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