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Is Rash of Retail Store Closings a Warning Sign for Distributors?

You don’t have to be a consumer retailer to know what’s going on in the industry. Alarming reports have flooded the news concerning the growing number of retail store closings across the country. Well-known retailers are shutting down their brick-and-mortar stores in droves – and they don’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. According to UBS, retailers have closed more than 15,000 stores since 2017; among them well-known companies such as Radio Shack, Toys “R” Us, Mattress Firm, and GNC.

What’s even more disconcerting are their predictions for the future. Based on current trends, UBS anticipates an estimated 75,000 physical stores – mainly in the clothing, consumer electronics, and furniture sectors – will close by 2026. Analysts say this aptly named “retail apocalypse” is the result of changing consumer habits that have more people shopping online than ever before.

Scott Frymire, SVP of Marketing at Unilog, says these store closings are more than just a result of customer shopping behavior. “As consumer shopping preferences began changing in the retail sector, some businesses just weren’t able or willing to evolve with their customers, which is why some were hit harder than others.”

For wholesalers and distributors, it begs the question: will this major disruption in the retail sector spread to the B2B marketplace? Industry experts, including Frymire, maintain if distributors want to stay relevant, they must develop their digital branch to not only adapt with their customers’ changing needs, but also to maintain a competitive foothold against the growing Amazon, Google, and Alibaba online marketplaces. “The retail market’s disruption is a good barometer for what could come down the pipeline for B2B organizations who don’t take proactive measures,” contends Frymire.

Successful retail strategies

Authorities in the retail industry say companies like Sears, Payless ShoeSource, and Pier 1 Imports were either complacent or acted too late when it came to enhancing the customer shopping experience. In contrast, retailers that adopted an omnichannel strategy early on are thriving in the marketplace, especially those that have found innovative ways to bridge their customers’ in-store and online experience, like the following brands:

  • Neiman Marcus 

    High-end retailer Neiman Marcus focused on removing the interaction barriers between channels by providing a “white glove” experience at each customer touchpoint. Their website now remembers information like the shoe or clothing sizes a customer searches for frequently so that the next time they search for these types of products, the site returns results showing the nearest brick-and-mortar locations that have those sizes available.

  • Crate and Barrel 

    The homeware store partnered with CloudTags to create a Connected Store experience where shoppers use tablets found throughout the store as “mobile” tote bags to learn more about their products. When they scan a product’s barcode with the tablet, they can read more specific product information, check out customer reviews, see size and color options, and even add it to their shopping list. The retailer reported a 10% sales hike within two months of testing their Mobile Totes experience in one of their Illinois stores.

  • Value City Furniture 

    To improve engagement and develop deeper customer relationships, the furniture retailer took a more customer-centric approach across their sales channels. They now offer resources and expert advice at every point of contact to help guide customers through their furniture purchase. They also built a platform called the Easy Pass to give shoppers the opportunity to create an online “shopping list” which an employee can then pull up in store. By connecting their online experience with their physical stores, customers can be directed to the products they like so they can feel the material, sit on the furniture, and fully experience their products.

Future forecasts

Market trends and industry predictions affirm that online shopping is the way of the future. In consumer retail, about 16% of overall sales are currently made online, but UBS expects that number will grow to 25% by 2026, then catapult to 95% by 2040. On the distribution side, Forrester predicts online sales will account for 17% of all U.S. B2B sales by 2023, which translates to $1.8 trillion. These jumps in online shopping are due, in part, by the increased reliance on mobile devices. In fact, Pew Research found that 81% of Americans now own a smartphone, which is also their primary device to access the Internet. Faced with this compelling data, is your business ready for the digital future?

Successful retail strategies

How distributors can bridge the gap

As a wholesaler or distributor, now’s the time to connect your online and offline sales channels by embracing an omnichannel sales strategy. Don’t think of your store locations and digital storefront as separate entities. Rather, treat them as a system of tightly integrated channels that deliver the same offerings and experiences for your customers. Here are a few tips to help bridge your sales channels so you can keep pace with online trends and evolving B2B buyer needs:

  • Build an omnichannel business – Lose the legacy technology and upgrade to a cloud-based platform that is scalable and powerful enough to grow with your business. Unilog’s all-in-one eCommerce solution includes a built-in PIM tool that stores, manages, and delivers all your product information to your sales channels. A PIM supports an omnichannel strategy and ensures a more fluid experience for customers, which leads to greater engagement, additional selling opportunities, and more loyal customers.
  • Provide the right mix of brick-and-mortar and online offerings – Find a balance that fits your customers’ needs. Some customers want to strictly buy online while others want in-person experiences and assistance. But a growing number of buyers want the option to shop for products online and pick them up in store, providing more convenience for them and more opportunities for you to drive additional in-store purchases.
  • Develop more experiential selling – Like the successful retailers mentioned above, B2B organizations can also create a better user experience and more personalized interactions using insight from web analytics and reporting tools. Once you know more about a customer’s behaviors and preferences, you can tailor content for them in e-mail marketing campaigns, in banner ads, and during onsite product searches to create a more meaningful and relevant shopping experience.
  • Optimize their mobile experience – Have you ever visited a website from your mobile device, only to find it doesn’t scale to the size of your screen or offer the same functionality as on a laptop? You probably left the site quickly, and so will customers and potential buyers who experience the same frustrations with your site. To alleviate this problem, make sure your core website is built with a responsive design that automatically adapts your site to the user’s device. Complement your responsive site with a custom mobile app that gives buyers alternate ways to shop your products, like scanning a barcode with their phone to find an item, or taking a picture of a product and using the image to search your online catalog.
  • Elevate your content – Create a more enriching shopping experience by making great product content available at your buyers’ fingertips. First and foremost, display up-to-date product pricing and availability online. If you can’t be transparent with buyers, they’ll find someone who will. Next, invest in better product content that includes specifications, features and benefits, supporting documentation, and multiple images. The more information you can provide buyers, the more they will rely on you as a trusted resource. At Unilog, our product content service experts enrich hundreds of thousands of SKUs a month, providing optimized content for both new and existing product catalogs.

Don’t risk losing relevance like some of the big-name retailers by ignoring signs and buyer expectations. Take a proactive approach by putting a plan in place now to integrate your sales channels and elevate the customer experience. “The worst thing you can do is be complacent; it will result in the competition passing you by,” stressed Frymire. “Learn from the retail marketplace’s mistakes and change your mindset to combat the disruption that’s coming to the B2B marketplace.”

For help in building your omnichannel business, contact the experts at Unilog. We’ll assess your current offerings and show you ways to connect your digital branch with your store locations to expand your market presence.

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