Ecommerce and Retail Brands Need to Put More Emphasis on Their Customer

It's the surest way to success

a man is smiling; behind him stands another man fixing his collar
In both ecommerce and brick and mortar, the emphasis needs to be on the consumer. Getty Images
Headshot of Matthew Gardner

In an unforgettable scene from Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts walks into a boutique in Beverly Hills with the clear intention of buying glamorous clothes with funding from her new client. Except she is completely ignored.

Her iconic response the next day, while deck out in a new wardrobe and too many designer bags to hold: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

Like the snobbish boutique in the movie, retail brands today are not listening to the messages people are sending them.

A fresh obsession with the customer’s needs is the surest path back to success for brick-and-mortar and ecommerce retail brands.

Shopping, whether in real life or online, is about identity. No Silicon Valley disruptor or so-called retail apocalypse will change that. People go to retailers in search of objects that help them become the person they want to be. It’s a moment when they’re open to the potential of expressing their individuality.

But retail brands are failing to pick up on the message. Instead, their response is to try being all things to all people. Gap, Calvin Klein and J. Crew have all launched cookie cutter campaigns in the last year about the joys of being similar to one another and the comforts of being with like-minded people. There’s also been an exploding number of retail brands transforming their once-unique logos into indistinguishable black-Helvetica-on-white-background word marks, like True Religion, Aldo, Aritzia, Ben Sherman, Burberry and Celine.

A fresh obsession with the customer’s needs is the surest path back to success for brick-and-mortar and ecommerce retail brands. When people with deep knowledge of their customers’ needs are equipped with the right product to meet them and a little bit of passion for the task, it can drive sales.

Everlane knows its minimalist customer so well that when it introduced jeans, the waitlist was 45,000 people deep. The Vulcan-like mind meld that Everlane has with its customers extends beyond just rolling out new products that consistently cater to real needs. It also guides the brand’s brutally confident advertising campaigns for those solution-based products. Take, for example, a recent campaign for underwear that was so confident in the product’s comfortable fit that it featured models with visible stretchmarks. And ModCloth, a vintage-inspired retailer, not only turned a deep understanding of a community of thrifters into a fast-growing business, but even let the customers’ desires guide the brand through its Be the Buyer program. Its recent ad campaign, “Say It Louder,” followed through on that marriage of the customers’ individuality and the brand’s product.

People everywhere are coughing up their desires and behaviors onto their mobile phones all day long. Adults in the U.S. spend more time on their phones than on desktop, around 3.3 hours per day, according to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. Any brand that doesn’t treat this moment as a golden age for listening to its customer is missing an opportunity to grow.

Mobile isn’t just a megaphone for your customer’s wants and needs. It’s also a boon for retailers that need to make it easier for customers to learn, visit, touch and feel product in real life.

Experience-worthy visits with hands-on styling and credible expertise will go a long way toward driving traffic to both brick-and-mortar and ecommerce storefronts. And letting those customers book appointments for retail visits through their phones, empowering them to buy online and pick up in-store and helping them easily find retail locations near them while they’re out shopping is the new standard. Sephora and even Sweetgreen have cracked the mobile-to-retail code, making it not only easier to shop or pick up in-person but also fun and rewarding.

To save itself, retail must remember why it exists in the first place. Too many retailers have been ignoring what the customer is trying to tell them, and they’ve been making a big mistake.

@gardnerz Matthew Gardner is co-founder of Highfield.