With ongoing news of store closings and malls-turned-ghost-towns, the death of physical retail seems inevitable. But don’t count on it. What’s really happening is a shakeup of outdated retail models. Companies that harness that turmoil will not only survive, but thrive.
The new retail era includes bricks, click, taps and voice commands. Today’s shopper is surrounded with shopping touchpoints 24/7/365. However much of the retail innovation is happening outside of the Americas. China and Korea are way ahead for online sales across categories, including clothing, accessories and food. At least one merchant cooks for you while they do your shopping.
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Perhaps surprisingly, some well-known names are helping lead the evolution. Here are three retail brands to watch this year: Wal-Mart, Amazon and Alibaba. Their focus on entrepreneurship shapes every innovation.
Alibaba’s app-based mega-store to car vending machines
Alibaba started as e-commerce with what could be called the world’s most efficient app. It’s Hema supermarket effortlessly merges online and in-store shopping for clothing and technology but also groceries. Shoppers can get a cooked-to-order meal at the store restaurant and shop online while they wait for their food. While you eat, staff fill a shopping bag or cart of your items. The store also is a fulfillment center where your bag goes by a conveyor belt to a staging place for you to take home or it can be sent to your home.
It’s also revolutionizing independent retailers with a franchise-type system to modernize store layouts and provide the technology, suppliers and products. Alibaba also is the distributor, making mom-and-pops part of the Alibaba system and bringing the Alibaba brand, technology and lifestyle into across China’s large cities and now small towns. Demonstrating to shoppers that Alibaba is central to their traditional and modern lives is a great receipt for shopper loyalty. Plus, the independents get help to move their family businesses into the 21st century while Alibaba gets 2,000 storefronts and e-commerce depots throughout the countryside.
Alibaba also recently launched a vending machine for cars with Ford Motor Company. Shoppers can choose from 100 cars on the company’s TMall mobile app and take one for a test drive on the spot.
Amazon’s checkout-free shopping to domestic robots
In the U.S., Amazon is reshaping retail as well. It recently acquired Whole Foods. Now stores feature Amazon Prime signage and pricing deals. A nearby Stop & Shop at one location lowered its prices after Amazon started offering Prime discounts. The company that Jeff Bezos built also recently launched an Amazon Go convenience store with checkout-free shopping.
It began putting pop-up stores in malls and is reportedly working on a domestic robot through its Lab 126. That’s where the company developed connected devices like the Amazon Echo speakers and the Dash re-ordering buttons. The robot is still under wraps.
Walmart’s Silicon Valley intervention
As the oldest retailer among the three, Walmart recognizes that it must always innovate to keep up with a wider range of competition. It turned to Silicon Valley to create its Store 8 innovation hub. The company is testing a service where the delivery driver not only brings groceries to your home, it also puts them in the house using a one-time security code if you’re not there to receive them.
These brands show that entrepreneurial thinking can prevail in a tumultuous retail environment.