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The Era of Empowered Customers: How Retailers Are Catering to More Discerning Shoppers

The power paradigm has shifted from the retailer to the customer. Even 20 years ago, businesses served as the lone “source of truth” since they owned and controlled access to product information. Customers were forced to rely on salespeople and store associates to discover and learn about products, visit storefronts to see demos, and slog to multiple stores to do any comparison shopping.

But with the pervasive presence of smartphones granting customer always-on access to the web, customers are more informed (and discerning) than ever. Shoppers now wield the power in these daily transactions. Customers are price-checking products in-store (showrooming, anyone?), reading up on ratings and reviews from fellow shoppers before buying, and demanding a more personalised experience from retailers.

“In a remarkably short period of time, the world has gone from being based on scarcity to being based on abundance. During this paradigm shift, it’s really important for brands to revisit why anyone should care if they exist.” —Doug Stephens, Industry Expert and Writer of Retail Prophet

To compete and meet these growing demands, retailers are getting creative in order to differentiate their service offerings. In an age where yesterday’s “wow” quickly becomes today’s ordinary, legacy retailers and new brands are amping up their customer service with innovative tactics like in-home visits, customised product offerings, and highly curated collections that curb the problem of decision fatigue.

Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Amazon

Some industry experts wrote off Best Buy long ago, particularly when other big-box competitors like Circuit City and HHGregg were forced to shutter. But this legacy electronics retailer is not only surviving, it’s thriving.

To avoid letting its retail stores stagnate, Best Buy doubled-down with major investments in the in-person shopping experience. Recognising Amazon’s long-term threat, in 2012 it launched its “Renew Blue” strategy. One of the plan’s pillars was to “reinvigorate the customer experience,” and this is where Best Buy has unquestionably succeeded.

While online shopping platforms (ahem, Amazon) have made ordering big-ticket electronics like flat-screen TVs and smartphones easier than ever, Best Buy has focused on filling a gap left by this one-click buying experience: personalised advice.

With countless options at our fingertips (and one-day delivery to our doorstep), consumers are often overwhelmed. That’s where Best Buy stepped in with one of their most successful value propositions—in-home consultations. A salesperson visits a customer’s home and offers tailored recommendations based on their specific needs, whether it’s analysing your house for smart home product compatibility, providing ideas for your own home theater, or repairing broken appliances.

And sales are growing as a result. Best Buy posted better-than-expected profits this year, including a 6% increase in comparable-store sales in the U.S. and a total of $9.4 billion in fiscal Q2 sales.

Compare this to Amazon’s freshly opened 4 Star Store in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, which is home to a collection of items customers have rated four stars or higher.

At first blush, the store sounds like it’s designed entirely with customers in mind, but early reactions paint a picture of an in-person experience that’s equal parts confusing and impersonal. The store’s product curation feels dispassionate, with inconsistent in-store groupings determined by the hazy logic of an algorithm. “Forget farm-to-table; this is pallet-to-checkout,” writes The New York Times of a recent visit to the Manhattan location. Time, as always, will tell if the idea has staying power.

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