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How can retailers shift their mindset to serve tech-savvy customers?

A new report shines a light on actions needed by retailers to profitably evolve in today’s world of tech-savvy consumers.
Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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As retailers' profits shrink as online penetration grows, there is and for a ‘Digital-First Retail’ approach. This advice is highlighted in a new report from AlixPartners and World Retail Congress.

The report identifies the need for a complete shift in mindset, operating model, capabilities, processes, tools and KPIs to service today’s tech-savvy customers.

The analysis, dubbed Digital-First Retail: Turning Profit Destruction into Customer and Shareholder Value, revealed that as online penetration grows, "retailers’ profits are shrinkingwith the cost of serving customers anytime, anywhere, at any speed not bringing in enough topline growth to best monetize even existing investments in technology, systems, infrastructure and people, let alone new investments."

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For example, the firm’s analysis in the report of 50 public U.S. retailers across several sectors (including apparel, department stores, hardlines and specialty retail) found that while their average online penetration has skyrocketed from 9.4% in 2012 to 25.6% in 2022, their profitability (as measured by average EBITDA percentage) has in that same period declined from 13.8% to just 8.3%.

AlixPartners also identified that customer preference for digital shopping is booming86% of consumers research a product online at least once in their purchase process. Such trends combine to create a major problem for retailers: higher costs (due to needed digital investments) and lower profits.

“It’s clear that retailers can’t keep operating the same way and expect different results when it comes to getting true ROI out of their investments,” said David Bassuk, global leader of the retail practice at AlixPartners. “What we at AlixPartners call ‘Digital-First Retail’ isn’t a program or initiative, it’s a change in mindsetand in a retailer’s organizationthat places digital at the very core of a retailer’s business model. And that’s exactly where digital needs to be today.”

AlixPartners examined why retailers struggle with digital efficiency and how they can shift from a traditional mindset to becoming a Digital-First Retail  leader. The report identified that:

  • Retailers spend big but inefficiently on digital; 
  • Globally, retailers spent $181billion on retail technology and digital improvements in 2022, according to the technological research firm Gartner; and
  • Despite this spending, additional AlixPartners research carried out among 150 global retailers has revealed that only 24% of retail executives think their company has above-average digital capabilities and just 36% of executives think their digital teams have the capabilities to meet their companies’ digital strategy needs.

The research also revealed a growing disconnect in company-capability assessments between the line managers doing the work and the executives making the decisions. Digital profitability is not understood, and there is a lack of transparency and common KPIs, the company noted.

Moreover, the research revealed that 84% of retail executives believe online delivers cumulative value, but only 48% measure the true costs and benefits of an omnichannel approach. Without a robust means of measuring success, many companies make digital investments that later prove ineffective. Misunderstanding profitability within and across all channels also prevents companies from correctly computing customer lifetime value, the company said.

DFR requires a big shift in investment, but retailers must make those shifts if they hope to keep up with their customers. And, often, it isn’t about spending more but rather spending smarter, more holistically and more intentionally, the report said.

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Are retailers set to increase digital spending?

More than half (63%) of retailers expect to spend more on digital investments in 2023 compared with 2022. Given consumer preferences for digital, most don’t have a choice – without a strong online experience, they stand to lose customers and market share to competitors, the report noted.

However, the hope around future investments ignores history. Per AlixPartners’ research, three-quarters (75%) of retail executives are confident they’ll get a good return on their digital investments. However, nearly two-thirds (64%) doubt their existing digital tools from past investments can support a modern DFR business. This raises the question of why, if past investments have not met expectations, there is confidence future investments will perform differently?

The report states that DFR is the answer to how to profitably evolvetaking the positive attributes of successful digitally native retailers (including agility and adaptability) and adopting them for traditionally store-led enterprises.

“Most retailers are data-rich, but insight-poor, and most still have a product-centric mindset rather than a truly customer-centric one,” said Matt Clark, EMEA leader of retail practice at AlixPartners. “Retailers must establish new KPIs with a Digital-First Retail lens to match their new operating model and operate with a DFR mentality, truly placing the customer first -- to turn shrinking profits into customer and shareholder value.”

Ian McGarrigle, chairman of the World Retail Congress, said, “Coming out of three unprecedented years shaped by the pandemic, retail has gone from accommodating a massive acceleration of online sales to the detriment of stores, to a period of resurgence in store-based retailing and a slowing of online growth. But what is clear is that there is no status quo in this new reality."

McGarrigle continued, "Transformational retail is now a critical pillar that describes today’s retail world and as such we are delighted to have AlixPartners on board as a knowledge partner, helping retailers to understand this new balance between on- and offline and more importantly, how they can identify how to deliver not just sales, but bottom-line growth too.”