Guest Column | September 15, 2021

Are Retailers In Tune With What Today's Consumers Want?

By Amy Reiter, Director of Community Engagement, Apparel and General Merchandise, GS1 US

Retail Leadership Driving Sales

As online consumer search trends moved from “cozy” and “lounge” to “wedding guest” and “work pants” this summer, the need for better alignment between rapidly changing consumer needs and retailer inventories became critical. More than ever, retailers and brands need to collaborate to enhance the behind-the-scenes supply chain processes that support a good e-commerce offering to stay competitive and relevant for discerning, pandemic-weary shoppers.

In fact, according to a recent study by Treasure Data, two-thirds of consumers (66%) are buying online now more than they ever did before the onset of the pandemic. Nearly half of consumers (47%) plan to do a combination of in-store and online shopping for the approaching holiday season, with over one-third (39%) skipping brick-and-mortar altogether in favor of e-commerce options. These changes are shaping the future of retail, as e-commerce and contactless fulfillment are no longer just “nice to have” – they are essential.

While many factors will determine how quickly the industry evolves, three important areas influence the industry’s ability to keep pace with shoppers: speed-to-web, improved search, and delivering on sustainability. Each requires an increased focus on product data, as it is becoming the lifeblood of a good multichannel customer experience.

New Tech Options To Support Speed To Web

Retailers and brands striving for an optimal e-commerce experience are in luck – today’s technology offers a variety of useful solutions to help improve efficiency and agility. It’s all about speed-to-web, and for too long, the supply chain has been slowed down by manual, outdated processes. At this year’s GS1 Connect: Digital Edition, NuOrder, a virtual showrooming platform, discussed how inconsistent data and outdated processes impact a retailer’s buying team. When brands and retailers run completely separate systems without any integration of data, inventory needs and timing are both thrown off, resulting in a significant loss of revenue for all sides.

To enhance speed to the web and help retail companies maximize their investments in new technology, members of the GS1 US Apparel and General Merchandise Initiative are taking another look at the basic data elements that support these systems. It used to be that all that was required for item setup was a style number, description, color, size, and Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) to uniquely identify the product. Now we’re asking, what else should be required to support getting items set up faster online? The pandemic exposed the need to change. Product attributes such as care instructions and material type are now key data points often searched by online shoppers. Over the next year, the initiative anticipates an update to the current Best Practice Guideline for Exchanging Product Images and Attributes to reflect the shift.

Collaboration On New Search Strategies

During the pandemic, many retailers have worked to refine their search strategy overall, recognizing that they were potentially missing out on millions of dollars in sales. Recent Harris Poll data found that 94% of surveyed consumers globally received irrelevant results while searching on a retailer's website in the last six months. What’s worse is that 85% say they view a brand differently after experiencing search difficulties, signaling a lasting impact on loyalty.

This shows an opportunity for marketing and supply chain to work in lockstep to secure the sale. Macy’s, for example, recently deployed Google Cloud Retail Search to help convert purchase intent by more closely mapping it to product inventory. With this technology, retailers can provide more personalized search experiences including auto-complete, and its machine learning capability helps it improve each time it is fed more data.

As search improves, inventory visibility must be impeccable. Macy’s and other retailers like Target have made no secret about their supply chain investments in item-level radio frequency identification (RFID) technology as a foundational component of their omni-channel capabilities. With RFID, retailers and brands collaborate faster to know what’s in stock and where it is with accuracy—99.9% accuracy, to be exact, according to a study from GS1 US and Auburn University’s RFID Lab.

Getting Serious About Sustainability

Not only did the pandemic show how we are all globally connected, but recent reports about the realities of climate change also have supported a deeper exploration of sustainability in the retail industry. For example, Levi’s has made headlines for its bold upcycling initiatives. According to their website, consumer use and disposal is a larger issue than consumers may know. Across the industry, over half of all garments made annually are burned or buried within one year.

GS1 US members are also giving more attention to the product attributes that consumers might be seeking out, such as sustainable packaging information, sustainable materials, and responsible manufacturing processes or certifications. The group recently collaborated to publish a guideline on sustainable packaging materials that aims to protect products that are being shipped to the consumer while minimizing waste and negative environmental impact.

While it’s hard to imagine where the retail industry would be without the wake-up call caused by the pandemic, this major disruption has created a sense of urgency to change. Right now, retailers and brands must collaborate more closely to understand and respond to the changing needs of consumers and meet them where they are whenever possible. Only then can they secure their brand loyalty and future relevance.

About The Author

Amy Reiter is Director of Community Engagement, Apparel and General Merchandise for GS1 US.