Leadership Perspectives

The Future of Social Retail


MeCommerce is a term that has been bandied around for a while now, what it means is to put the PERSON at the forefront of any ‘shopper’ strategy. What’s interesting is that although it sounds pretty ‘new’ in actual fact it was the ubiquitous ‘corner shop’ that really invented it. If we think back to the origins of retailing, the local shopkeeper knew every customer well, saw what they bought and knew their broader interests; their focus was on the people – their personality and their behavior.

The digital world has replaced that with massive data usage, some of which can be intrusive, but bricks-and-mortar remains largely a blank canvas (except in supermarkets where a weekly shopping cycle makes loyalty programs meaningful for both sides). A lot of new technology does little to provide the personal experience of old world retail; it’s now based on counting and shouting. So the secret weapon as a retailer is to get to know the consumer in a two-way dialogue – think Sam Malone-style in Cheers.

However, for businesses that are serious about growing their bottom line, expanding their portfolio and increasing customer lifetime value, socially designed strategies have to become a priority in 2015. 

To quote Jeff Jordan, Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, January 2014, “we are in the midst of a profound shift  from physical to digital retail…it’s happening faster than I could have imagined.”

According to the latest research from Internet Retailer’s 2015 Social Media 500 study, purchases influenced by social media totaled $3.30 billion in 2014, up 26 percent on the previous year – see more here.

Regionally, total e-commerce sales in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are estimated to be $3-$3.5 billion (Dh11 billion). The UAE’s annual sales, which approached an estimated $2 billion in 2010, made up approximately 55-60 percent of GCC e-commerce sales during the period according to Visa. Imagine what the growth potential of these figures would be if they were powered by socially designed strategies… 

If you would like to know how to ‘socialise’ your retail strategy, here are my top 10 tips:


“Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer doesn’t own any inventory” said Techcrunch earlier this year. Alibaba is the largest online merchant in the world, with $240 billion in merchandise sold in 2013. People have been trained to go straight to Taobao in search of goods rather than do a Baidu search. Additionally, Alibaba doesn’t allow Baidu to crawl its websites. Thus, it is almost impossible for someone to get full search results of all products without going to Taobao or Tmall. 


While mobile usage is constantly on the rise across the Middle East and ‘smart device’ connectivity is almost at 100 percent in most Gulf countries, retailers need to see how mobile deeply impacts the customer journey. The function of mobile will vary considerably across products, customers and purchase location, but the retailer’s key challenge is to offer a mobile experience that is attuned to these differences. In many instances, even though mobile is not the transactional device, it is the most important one when creating both awareness and desire. It is imperative that retailers think about how they can communicate through the mobile devices ‘lock screen’ to drive engagement, as well as create content that fits a smaller screen and short attention spans. Brands that I’ve noticed trying to engage the customer effectively on mobile are Marks and Spencers and of course, the ever innovative Burberry. Both retailers have armed sales staff with smart devices which enhance the sales experience and knowledge base in store. A very easily implemented, but effective strategy. What’s important to recognise here is that it’s about consumer delight; that WOW moment. A bad experience is just not worth putting out there given the echo it can create.


This is NOT a threat to offline retail, so long as store owners understand the consumer’s desire – especially here in the region – to really ‘research’ what they’re buying. If we make the customer journey present, consistent and enticing at every possible touch point, this will lead to increased sales and more importantly repeat purchasing and loyalty. Make it easy for them – it really is that simple. So many websites and social channels I see here in the Middle East appear to be designed so that you need a degree from NASA to transact in any shape or form. Saying that, there are a few notable examples of brands trying to get this right; namely uae.souq.com/ae-en/ and dubizzle.com/.  


A lot of problems about buying online is that you never truly understand if it is going to fit or suit you; take fashion or beauty items as a perfect example. If you entered a VR store, you could have an immersive experience where you are getting to try on the goods, really see how well they fit you and make a more informed decision over whether it’s what you want.


Improvements in the connection between online and physical retail include improved delivery options for online sales (click-and-collect and 90-minute delivery services), improved online product experiences and improved in-store mobile offerings. Beacon technology is one tiny part of a much larger shift in our understanding of how digital retail can be brought in store – it’s a change that’s mainly being led by customers at the moment, so retailers are going to have to catch up and keep up.


Amazingly I still see social channels and platforms being used as media distribution mechanisms for traditional marketing messages. This means that customers are not being listened to when they have legitimate enquiries and are not being dealt with effectively to either drive deeper understanding and connections or even sales. 


Uber, Amazon and other services has meant that shoppers are now being trained to expect and even demand services at their fingertips. Trust has become a matter of swift fulfillment – think mobile tracking of services delivered. Retailers that tap into this new consumer paradigm will exceed swiftly and disrupt market categories as people want services that make their lives easier, simpler and in the case of fashion retailers, more stylish. Spotlighting Lookstyle, this savvy new start-up taps into people’s Instagram and Pinterest accounts to see what they like and send recommendations based on what is discovered; a very interesting use of social data here. 


Customers today are always on the look out for unique and engaging experiences; ones that allows them to plug into their innate desire to show off, share or consume. Given its innately live, sensorial and experiential quality, physical stores have the potential to become powerful immersive experiences, which facilitate true social behavior – community, advocacy and referral. They become physical representations of their brand story and allow people to have an experience which simply cannot take place online. 


The holy grail of true social activation is to foster what I call the three ‘magic R’s’. You want to create legions of fans that ‘Review, Refer and Recommend’. We will see racks of products and rows of shelving give way to gallery-esque store designs and artful merchandising, allowing space for in-store media and interactivity with the products. Social media will be infused into the experience offering at-the-shelf reviews, ratings and comparisons of products. The store in essence will become an immersive and experiential advertisement for the products it represents and a direct portal to the entire universe of distribution channels available.


Vanity metrics are dead now. Retailers need to think about how they measure the in-store experience. Anonymous facial recognition, video analytics, mobile ID tracking, beacon technology, radio frequency identification and other systems will transform stores into living websites. These technologies will help stores understand their consumer at a micro level – what kind of customer visited, were they repeat customers, were they a new type of customer, what did they look at, purchase, who did they engage with? 

The future of shopping is here now. We are seeing technologies that allow you to unlock content – physical installations based on tracking what kind of mood you’re in. We have stores as living websites and customer engagement spaces. The question is, are retailers brave enough to embrace this new world? Or, will there be new upstarts that come and replace the brands we know and love, disrupting – and some will say improving – the way we all shop and purchase goods today? 

(Visited 4 times, 1 visits today)