All I want for Christmas is a virtual twin

Is anyone happy to predict what might be coming in 2017?  I suspect not. 2016 was full of unexpected surprises and is best epitomized by the new Toblerone, it still has peaks, but the gaps between them are bigger and more divisive, just like our politicians.

The nation is split over which retailer has made the best Christmas TV spot, M&S or Aldi, but it has not stopped shoppers from shopping. John Lewis might not have made the best TV ad for the festive season, but it did have the biggest ever week in its trading history this Black Friday. And the only prediction I can safely make for 2017 is that the retail event will be back next year. Black Friday has usurped the traditional ‘must have toys’ list and is fast becoming the official start of the festive shopping season spree. Next year we will see greater competition for shoppers and greater focus on their three budgets; time, money and frustration.

For the first time this year I received digital calendar invites for Black Friday events. Intrusive yes, but an indication of how far retailers will go to cut through the promotional clutter to get time with the WIGIG conscious shopper.

This Black Friday also saw a 12% rise in online spending according to retail analysts IMRG. Shoppers will always want value, but that is no longer simply price x quality. They want simplicity and convenience and at the moment that is being delivered (literally) by going online.

Of course, there are many retailers who still understand the vital role of physical stores as environments where shoppers can touch, feel and experience their product assortment and many more that will complain that their stores have simply become showrooms. But the online world is changing, today all the talk might be of the ‘internet of things’ but it is rapidly becoming about experience. The Internet of Experience.

VR and AR are two technologies that people are predicting will transform the shopping experience and we have seen many retailers experiment with solutions in 2016. John Lewis is bringing its Christmas TV story to life in store right now with VR, whilst DS Automobiles showcased a solution at the 2016 Geneva Auto Show which could have a more everyday application in the car buying process. I have no doubt that this will continue to evolve and the virtual showroom will become a permanent fixture both online and in-store for many retailers.

img_0057But perhaps the most interesting application of VR for retailers is not in enriching customer experience, but in helping them in their internal process. There are more and more retailers and brand owners that have VR cave solutions to help packaging design and merchandising programs to deliver the perfect shelf and perfect shop. The next generation of technology will mean this no longer has to be a linear process based on an idealised store layout, instead key stakeholders will be able to come together and collaborate around a virtual twin of an actual store and do that in real time by connecting it to digital shelf labels in a physical store, as is possible with the 3DEXPERIENCE Twin. I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.

I’m not going to make any predictions for 2017, but if I was a retailer, a virtual twin would be at the top of my list for Father Christmas.

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Does Black Friday signal dark days ahead for brands and retailers?

This article was first published by the Guardian on 18th November 2015

Things were much simpler growing up. I still have vivid recollections of the media coverage of the big shopping events: turning on the Oxford Street Christmas lights to herald the start of the festive shopping period; and the people camping outside Harrods the night before the sale.

After the seasonal bargains were snapped up, we experienced a sustained period of normality. There wasn’t much else to distract shoppers from their regular habits and the retail promotional calendar reflected the lives we lived.

Since then we’ve seen the huge commercialisation of key calendar dates. All Hallows’ Eve is now the full-on American Halloween experience and running alongside the more child-centric activities, there’s the increasing popular Día de Muertos, known more commonly as Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

Mothering Sunday, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day are all key dates in the retail calendar. Singles’ Day in China, originally created by Alibaba for those without valentines, is now the biggest shopping event in the world. This year’s event marked the first time Chinese shoppers could buy global brands and sales topped $14.3bn, a 60% increase on 2014, making it bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

The challenge, now that hardly a month goes by without a big retail event, pre-season, mid-season or end of season sale, is that we’re training shoppers never to pay full price.

Events such as Black Friday involve deep discounts and often include products that are at the premium or luxury end of the market and would never usually be available at less than full price. The cost in margin and brand values is not sustainable, which means that brands and retailers must now reconsider this approach.

In the UK, Asda has done just that and will shun the Black Friday sales this year. My favourite is US outdoor retailer REI’s approach. Its #OptOutside initiative will mean that it closes on Black Friday – the idea being that the American public will be inspired to get outdoors and not go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving.

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There are routes that provide brands and retailers with the opportunity to create value rather than destroy it. Dynamic pricing – big in the travel sector and used by online retailers such as Amazon and Net-a-Porter – will become a larger feature in retail as brands and retailers work towards offering price flexibility based on day part or by targeting offers to distinct groups of people via email campaigns and vouchers for mobile devices.

As the level of personalisation in retail increases, personalised pricing and data-driven offers will create a more rewarding and targeted experience than Black Friday.

Collaborations between brands, or brands and retailers, provide another way of creating interest without recourse to discounting. I call this “the power of X”. However, as was the case of the chaos around the Balmain x H&M launch, these collaborations now carry the risk that the real value isn’t created for the retailer and brands involved, but for profiteering eBay traders.

But it’s still possible to create product ranges based around new and exclusive features that provide resistance to the discounting trend. For example, discounting became such an issue in the electronics sector that when Samsung partnered with designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec to launch Serif TV, it decided only to sell them through its own e-commerce platform and in high-end furniture stores.

Serif provides a good example of where brands are working hard to circumvent traditional retail models. Clearly things have changed since my childhood and I’m not suggesting we go back to those times. But retailers and brands need to wean themselves off the addiction of Black Friday discounts and focus instead on reframing value for their customers.