Guest Column | March 12, 2018

Why Agile Merchandising Is A Win-Win For Retailers

By Allen Bonde, Small Data Group

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Partnering with brand reps to provide fun, profitable in-store promotions, displays, and buying experiences is one part art and one part science. But it always starts with a passion for meeting the needs of today’s wired-up and infinitely distracted consumer, especially as the retail sector continues to undergo massive transformation powered by changing consumer tastes, cost pressures, and the growth of online channels. Not to mention the resurgence of niche retailers and other direct channels that strive to offer greater convenience and unique value added services or packaging.

Meanwhile, more funding continues to flow into upstart brands and new retail concepts driven by Amazon and other innovators, creating both a lot of noise and opportunity. To stand-out and succeed, retail merchandisers need to move fast, use their data, and think like a disruptor.

Stand Out By Thinking Like A Disruptor

Being a disruptor goes hand-in-hand with building a lifestyle brand that appeals to enthusiasts or other passionate consumers that themselves like to “change the rules.” In the beverage space, think of the rise of cold brew, the many kombucha offerings, or even what Red Bull is doing. In sporting goods and apparel, Altra Running and Patagonia are great examples.

Customers are often their best salespeople for these types of brands, and their brand marketers frequently leverage them in promotions in the field or in grassroots-style social media campaigns. Of course the most acclaimed lifestyle brands like Apple or Dyson often reach such a cult-like status their products almost sell themselves and never even have to be discounted.

Another approach proven to deliver results for both aspiring brands and retailers is creating unique or unexpected in-store experiences and incorporating clever/engaging details into displays or packaging to stand out from the crowd. Think of the impact of the best pop-up stores or special appearances by a celebrity spokesperson. Or the high touch approach at your favorite Starbucks or fashion boutique. Even these small details (like the exchanges between barista and consumer) and the look and feel of the front of the store helps to create brand love — something I’ve researched and written about with brand maven Loie Maxwell.

Innovation around shipping and delivery, including specialty apps for home delivery of food and beverage products such as Drizly, or the integration of e-commerce platforms to enable consumers to order online and pick up in the store can have an equally disruptive influence. And around the corner, retail robotics, immersive virtual reality apps, and the application of AI to both online and offline commerce has potential to further revolutionize the way we stock, promote, and sell goods and services — and use data to better understand and engage at each stage of the customer journey.

What data is needed to be more agile? Merchandisers have most of it swirling around them already — if they know where and how to harness it.

Look For Ways To Use Your Everyday Data

Several years ago, back in my consulting days, I started to look at the role of big and small data in merchandising, and concluded that retailers had a unique opportunity emerging to start sifting through their growing mountain of product and customer data. Both to pick out nuggets that could help them better understand consumers and target offers and recommendations, and to look at ways to remake the in-store experience to fit emerging consumer trends.

Specifically, retailers who could harvest the small data they already had (POS data, field data from brand partners, social signals from online media, etc.) — and turn it into actionable insights — could in fact create a game changing advantage via agile, data-driven merchandising.

While personalization of the shopping experience or predicting and avoiding out of stocks are two visible examples of turning insights into action, there are other exciting ways data can lead to innovation in retail such as smart routing of field teams or delivery vehicles, smart apps and kiosks for associates, and location-based offers.

Meanwhile a brand level view showing progress vs. sales goals, consumer feedback and campaign performance, and even schedules of events and daily visits can be added to the mix from brand partners who use a specialized mobile CRM like Repsly.

By combining these perspectives, data-driven insights offer to both streamline back-end processes and simplify front-end interactions with consumers, suppliers, and their products, as well as help retail operations staff and store owners to learn from each interaction and transaction so the next time if can be even better for all parties.

This process of continuous learning and improvement is the core of what agile is all about.

Move Fast By Embracing Agile Techniques

While Agile methods come from the world of product and software development, these same techniques are gaining traction in sales, marketing, and merchandising as well. A great resource for learning about this application is Jim Ewel’s excellent blog.

At its core, being agile in retail merchandising means predictably responding quickly to market changes and working together (store managers and brand reps) towards a common goal that results in consistently delighting customers throughout their journey.

In practice, helping teams continuously improve their retail execution and get all stakeholders closer to their goals can become a reality if merchandisers focus on:

  • Streamlining data collection — partner with brands and distributors to ensure data is captured correctly, while empowering field teams to place orders right from their phones.
  • Standardizing around best practices — learn what is working and apply workforce management techniques and tools for coordinating marketing blitzes, demos, or other field promotions with brand teams.
  • Socializing insights — strive to have real-time visibility into how new products are performing, and use this data to plan new approaches with brand partners.

These activities provide the pillars for continuous, agile merchandising, and can be applied across all channels. Yet, while digital may get a lot of the attention these days, physical touch points like in-store promotions and advertising remain as important (or more so) for influencing purchase decisions, according to a recent CMO Council study.

The role of the store is changing, but it’s not going away any time soon. In fact, consumers themselves view convenience and the ability to “see, touch, feel, and try out items” as the top reason for choosing to shop in stores, something my team at Repsly recently discussed.

Applying agile merchandising can both optimize what consumers see and try out, and drive competitive advantage for retailers and more sales for their favorite brands. This sounds like a win-win for all parties.

About The Author

Allen Bonde is a start-up advisor and founder of Small Data Group, as well as vice president of marketing at mobile CRM provider Repsly. Back in his consulting days he spent time at McKinsey and Yankee Group, and was also co-founder of social marketing pioneer Wyng. He started his career as a data scientist in the telecom sector. You can follow him at @abonde.