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Great Expectations

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Here our Editor, Lydia Hanson, shares her thoughts on today’s ‘consumer experience’ and the expectations placed on both the consumer and the business they are buying from. As a member of Gen Y herself, Lydia focuses on millennials in particular …despite hating the term. 

When I sat down to write this piece, my brain wouldn’t quite co-operate. It couldn’t stop thinking. I had tasked myself with exploring the theme of ‘the consumer and the consumer experience’ and putting my thoughts on a page. Despite the fact I was behind the concept of this theme for WhichPLM [more about that, here], and had asked many other contributors to “bear this in mind” when composing for the site early this year, it was harder than expected.

The reason being that the notion of ‘the consumer’ as a whole is a heavy one.

The consumer: the reason for business, the reason for everything.

Whether you work in retail, healthcare, energy, or technology, the chances are you work with the consumer in mind. You may not go from day to day thinking solely of who will be buying/using an end product – or even working towards a ‘product’ at all – but your business needs customers and consumers to thrive and to survive. In retail your ‘customer’ will likely be a shopper; in healthcare a patient; and in energy or technology, a user.

Let’s focus on retail, since we’re all in the Fashion space. Brands, retailers and manufacturers are always working towards product for the consumer: usually a physical garment, shoe, or accessory, and usually purchased in-store or online.

I’m well aware of the differences between the ‘customer’ and the ‘consumer’, but for the purposes of this piece, I’ll be interchanging between the two.

As we all know, the consumer experience isn’t as cut and dry as it once was. Gone (or going) are the days of the simple shopper. That consumer experience means more now than ever before – for every industry. Today, a consumer is offered discounts for loyalty, even for proximity; offered the ability to wear a garment without ever physically trying it on; offered a 24/7, omnichannel, connected shopping experience.

Of course, nothing I’m saying here is news. We all know about the rise of the ‘connected consumer’ and the myriad ways to reach out to him or her. It’s been explored again and again, and a quick Google search on the term brings up over 3 million hits (and counting).

And so, although perhaps not the most helpful or obvious angle here, what I’d like to explore is the expectation of that consumer (mainly, the ‘millennial’), as well as the expectation of a retailer or brand today, and how these (sometimes stereotypical) expectations are both helping and hindering the future of our industry.

As a ‘millennial’ myself (at least, I think, as there is no one approved definition) I may be breaking the cardinal rule of WhichPLM and speaking from bias when I say that oftentimes we’re unfairly stereotyped. We’re regarded as ‘the lazy generation’ amongst other things, and this view is only perpetuated by industry improvements in our everyday lives. If we have access to Nest, access to a Roomba, access to VR, access to one-click purchasing and tailored shopping experiences, can we really be blamed for using them?

Convenience is giving rise to this so-called ‘laziness’ and, in effect, creating its own challenges, having spawned a completely connected generation.

In turn for (a lot of) negative expectations being placed on this generation, we/they too place certain expectations on the businesses they buy from. Take the expectation of personalization, for example; for a retailer or brand, business models that have worked successfully for decades are being replaced by advanced, personalized and ‘techie’ ones.  And this customer expectation of the personalized, bespoke, or made-to-measure experience is only growing.

Not only is the rise of an ‘out of this world’ consumer experience creating a wealth of challenges for the retailer and brand, it’s also spawning a new type of shopper, who is in complete control. And there are some obvious pros and cons around how much power a consumer holds today. On the one hand, retailers and brands are able to give their customers exactly what they want, which is their entire reason for business; but on the other, the customer will become accustom to this – just like we became accustomed to Internet shopping.

The expectations placed on both the customer, and the retailer or brand are both helping and hindering our industry. Let’s discuss the bad news first. And let’s discuss how it impacts the retailer, brand or manufacturer in particular.

The sheer power of today’s consumer is slightly daunting, as I’ve mentioned. For the retailer, there’s the daunting possibility that they could one day be rendered obsolete. If the consumer continues to reign in more and more control over their own product(s), the retailer could effectively become ‘the middle man’, and we all know how the saying goes. I’m posing a question here, rather than a solution, but if a consumer were able to design and source product, wouldn’t this have a huge impact on the supply chain? Is this something we might be heading towards? This idea takes the concept of personalization far beyond where we are today, but not necessarily out of reach.

Another hindrance is the impact that the negative voice of the customer can have on brand identity. With much more of a voice than ever before, a dissatisfied customer on social media has that much more of an impact. Where Corporate Social Responsibility, supply chain governance, and ethical trading were once viewed as the most important factors for brand reputation, the tide is turning. CSR and ethical working are still as important as ever (arguably more so in this transparent world) but retailers and brands now have the added pressure of dissatisfied customers on social media as well.

And to reach these customers in the first place, there needs to be an increase in marketing spend, and an increase in market research – more outgoings for the business. Never has it been so important to try and understand your target customer. And once you’ve secured that customer’s purchase, you haven’t always secured that customer. Sure, today’s generation of shoppers spend more (with our supposed constant influx of disposable cash), but they’re also savvy. If they can get a better deal somewhere else, chances are that they will, making customer retention that much harder.

Enough of the negative; onto the positive, which I believe far outweighs what I’ve discussed so far.

Whilst other industries can easily blame millennials for a myriad of issues, in Fashion they’re somewhat of a blessing. I believe that for every negative connotation that comes with ‘the millennial’ there are two positives. Our supposed buying habits and desire to spend, spend, spend are only good things to a retailer or brand. And, if we take into account the various statistics proving twentysomethings to be the largest generation (population-wise), businesses can really use their habits to an advantage. Indeed, most businesses are.

Technology moves at warp speed, with no signs of slowing down, so let’s embrace that. There are so many more platforms today to gain insights into our customers, giving our industry so much more information than ever before. And everything runs on information.

Using this information is paramount.

How many people do you know who are borderline addicted to their phones? Whilst this addiction can be painful in everyday situations (like sitting down for dinner with a friend or spouse), it’s a real positive for e-commerce. Not only is the ability to order a dress or a pair of shoes with a few taps of the finger (or a simple instruction to Alexa) great for the customer, it’s also great for the brand, the e-tailer, the app creator, the analytics company working in the background, and everyone else in the supply chain. Which brings me to another great positive: the rise of extended PLM solutions, all playing their part.

A modern retailer or brand will be using a whole host of different tools and solutions within their business, boosting the industry as a whole. And if these solutions or apps are capable of working together, then that’s a huge bonus. Today, a business could be using ERP, PLM, 3D, planning solutions, analytics solutions, counterfeit apps, image recognition software and so on. There’s a reason for the saying, ‘there’s an app for that’.

I mentioned earlier about really using the information available, and in the same vein businesses should also be using the people available. As the largest generation, twentysomethings are also the young professional generation; companies can use their mindset within the business, innovating from the inside out. After all, who can target a group of millennials better than a group of millennials?

It’s this innovation that will see success. I own a current generation iPhone, a MacBook, an Amazon Echo, and my own house with a Hive heating system. I’m lucky and privileged in a number of ways, and I know that. Sure, as a millennial you can brand me lazy (despite the fact I worked for those things) but convenience wasn’t actually what prompted the majority of these purchases (recent or otherwise)… marketing and innovation was.

So, let’s continue to create, continue to improve. Let’s continue to collaborate, and continue to work for each other. Let’s keep evolving. Let’s continue to learn about the consumer. Because, for all the ‘challenges’ today’s consumer brings, retailers and brands are doing a stellar job of crushing them.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.