5 ways retail marketers can be disruptive in the digital age

IBM’s head of global industry marketing reveals the digital challenges and opportunities retailers face in maintaining a competitive edge.

IBM’s director, distribution sector, of global industry marketing, Patricia Waldron, discusses key marketing strategies successful retailers are deploying
IBM’s director, distribution sector, of global industry marketing, Patricia Waldron, discusses key marketing strategies successful retailers are deploying

The retail space has gone through significant digital disruption over the past few years, making competition to stand out from the crowd fiercer than ever before.

IBM’s director, distribution sector, of global industry marketing, Patricia Waldron, said for retailers it is both an exciting and challenging time.

“One of the great things about the retail space is the ability to make a difference for your customers every day,” she told CMO. “Now some people love that challenge and are the ones that are successful because they are embracing change.”

So how can retail organisations better utilise digital for a new competitive edge? Here are Waldron’s five tips.

1. Embrace the cognitive era

For Waldron, the age of new cognitive technologies such as those offered by IBM are enabling retailers to solve some of their customers’ key challenges.

“The cognitive era is about taking retailers on a continuum,” she said. “It involves systems that can understand, reason and give you recommendations. But the most exciting thing is that they learn as they go. So as they make decisions for you and you put them into action, they get smarter in real time.”

In order to implement cognitive systems to differentiate your brand in the highly competitive retail space, Waldron highlighted systems that make the most of ‘dark data,’ and that take advantage of new insights from different sources of data.

“This includes anything from videos and images to weather sensors,” she explained. “Putting all this information into cognitive systems, you have access to things like social information, news, local events and weather. In the retail space, what these all do is help you understand and anticipate longer term trends, while also helping retailers make everyday decisions more accurately and in real time.”

2. New technology breeds new habits

Data, devices, people and processes are becoming more and more intertwined.

“From the millennial perspective, we’re starting to see their habits become everyone’s habits,” Waldron said. “We’re starting to see people have pocket butlers or a pocket concierge with their phones. And we’re now moving from phones to wearables.”

Whether you’re searching for shoes on your phone, or looking at an app on your wearable, this combination of devices is seeing consumers effectively generating more data that can be put into a cognitive system, which in turn can help retailers personalise customer experiences more effectively, Waldron said.

“The idea is you have more devices that are generating more data to better help the retail conversation with the customer,” she said.

3. Take customer engagement to a highly personalised level

In order to stand out from the crowd, Waldron stressed it is all about customer engagement at a highly personalised level.

“While there is this concept of omni-channel, I believe that ultimately the consumer is the channel,” she claimed. “The retailer should be treating the customer consistently like an individual, regardless of whether the customer is interacting via the brick-and-mortar store or online. It’s all about that engagement. Customers want retailers to understand them on a personal level - their needs, their wants and aspirations at any point in time.”

4. Why it’s all about differentiating the customer experience

Another critical way you can disrupt the retail space is differentiating the experience for your customer, Waldron said.

“You can sell or market one product so many different ways on different sites,” she said. “But by differentiating in terms of your service, convenience, product assortment and experience in the store, a retailer can define its brand, what it stands for and better execute that strategy flawlessly, based on what the consumer wants.”

5. Abandon legacy systems

According to Waldron, one key thing retailers need to do moving forward is to abandon some of their legacy approaches when it comes to people, processes and technology.

“Retailers can optimise their non-selling function so they can leave some space to invest in innovation and be more agile,” she said. “Successful retailers that are serious about disruption are experimenting and iterating quickly over time.

“This means you can no longer wait 6-10 months to do something. The pressure is now on retailers to use technology quickly in order to promote and market to your customers.”

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