Even as recently as two decades back, the retail space was still very much focused on in-store retailing, while the banking sector con­tinued to focus on branch banking. Online transactions were far from mainstream, and having an online presence on the market­place was an after thought for most retailers. However, this all has now changed. The rapid shift to online shopping has been the biggest trend I’ve seen in the retail space in my 25-year career in the customer and mar­keting analytics field.The internet-equipped, ubiquitous mobile phone in literally everyone’s pocket has accelerated this shift to online and, in turn, revolutionized the way people interact with retail.

Amid these changes, the biggest challenge is always show to attract the most eyes to your brand. In former times, this meant having a promi­nent store positioned on the high street. In the era when television was the most prominent medium of advertisement, QVC paid to have a high place on TV program guides. And now, in the new world where people have the whole internet to explore, we have to try as many new ways we can to grab the maximum eyeballs and match our online retail activity with what our customers are looking for in their online shopping experience. When we send them push notifications about our products or when we broadcast something about our offers on air, it has to be at the right time for them to be receptive toward the offerings.

A New Direction in Today’s Retail

In recent times, we at QVC witnessed the most obvious instance of cus­tomer receptiveness toward certain offerings that accompanied a shift in product demand during the pandemic. Apparel and jewellery recorded an immediate drop, while demand for our home and garden products increased by a huge margin. Not being a traditional departmen­tal store with a rigid product collection model, we were able to shift our product mix rapidly and expand the home and gardening range in response to the changing customer demands. Also, we kept our gardening products and offers in the spotlight by giving them more air time. This enabled us to meet our customers’ needs by making the products they want easily accessible.

“A strong link between customer insights and marketing area is absolutely critical for driving business and translates into enhanced customer experience”

Incidentally, we were also able to expand our reach to a wider and more receptive audience through the pandemic. We saw a huge surge of customer interest – from both existing and newer clientele – in QVC and our brand offerings online, as most of the high street brick-and-mortar shops witnessed a massive dip in footfall due to lockdowns. To cater to them, we turned to our most valuable tech media tools – the humble TV and the new-age mobile phone. As a video commerce retailer, we broadcast our products on live TV for 19 hours a day, 364 days a year across the UK. The mobile phone is also critical for us as a retailer with a mobile app, where we upload enriching video content aimed at inspiring people and making them aware of our offerings, and sparking their interest in our product range.

Journey to Enhance Customer Connect

Placing ads and releasing content targeting the right customers at the right time requires heightened knowledge of their shopping preferences and patterns. Many years ago, during my time at Sainsbury’s, we built a statistical model for customer segmenta­tion to gain better insights into our customers’ diverse shopping habits. The model showed that around 48 percent of customers visited the same store on the same day every week and bought the same items. The insights we gained were that the most important factor for brand loyalty for this customer group was the availabil­ity of the items whenever they walked into the stores.

Today, we leverage similar customer segmentation models at QVC, where we always link our marketing with our customer in­sights with our shopper behaviour. We talk extensively with our customers about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in their interactions with our offerings. From the insights gained from this research, we give them relevant, top-notch marketing insights and brand content. This also has added advantage for merchandisers to understand their customer base better, propelled by excellent cus­tomer segmentation work aided by data analytics. A strong link between customer insights and the marketing area is absolutely critical for driving the business and translates into an enhanced customer experience. This, in turn, helps retail personnel engage and connect better with our shoppers, who tend to come from vast­ly different backgrounds, interests, and life stages.

The Retail Space of Tomorrow

As for the future of retail, we are entering a very interesting space, trending towards an integrated approach to shopping and leisure. Now, shopping in person is going to be about leisure, while all practical shopping will increasingly be done online. The most suc­cessful retailers of tomorrow will be those who can contribute to making shopping a leisure experience. Novelties like in-store the­atre or in-store demonstrations are set to become commonplace for brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, IKEA has set up a shop at Oxford Circus and is gradually moving into city centers to at­tract customers during their casual outings.IKEA believes that while people don’t necessarily want to walk around the store all weekend, they might just drop in to buy a few things that catch their fancy while out in town spending leisure time. This is prob­ably the biggest trend that I see happening in retail over the next five years, possibly even sooner.

Advice to Budding Retail Aficionados

With my background in data analytics, I would say there’s been an explosion in the number of technologies out there. You could never become an expert in every data visualization tool and every programming language in use. From a technology point of view, my advice would be to learn SQL, the fundamental in data analyt­ics, first, and then pick a couple of tools and languages and become experts in those. And from a retail angle, I would say – at the risk of sounding like a cliché – that retail businesses need to be as close to their customer as possible and to know their likes and prefer­ences inside out. This is important because what you personally think will work may not necessarily resonate with your custom­ers. You’ll constantly need to test and learn about them to find out which customer engagement strategies are relevant, what works or doesn’t work, why, and for whom