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The future of retail? Buying from anywhere.

As businesses get used to selling online, in stores, and everywhere in between, flexibility is the key to success

The future of retail? Buying from anywhere.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many retail businesses had to quickly pivot from in-store transactions to digital sales. Amid this fast and largely unexpected digital transition, retailers had a crash course in the importance of contingency planning and future-proofing. The big lesson? Retailers need to be flexible to build loyalty with customers across a variety of sales channels, from in-person shopping to online ordering.

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At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, Square hosted a panel discussion exploring a retail landscape in rapid transition. Experts shared advice on maintaining a consistent brand platform and voice and how to get creative in order to stand out in a crowded retail market. Here are four key takeaways from their conversation:

1. Technology as lifeblood
Many businesses who made that overnight pivot in 2020 and became full-fledged e-commerce retailers endured a trial-by-fire transition. But those that found their bearings can now pause and think more strategically about how to use technology to enhance their offerings. For a clothing retailer, that may mean not just selling blouses online, but building a technology approach that can blur and blend the boundaries between in-person and online shopping. After all, consumers these days expect to be able to order that blouse online and pick it up in the store, or even virtually try on that blouse in the comfort of their own home.

As a result, a company’s tech platform often is greater than the sum of its parts. “It can be the lifeblood of your business,” says David Rusenko, head of e-commerce at Square. “Once you’re running your business digitally, your efficiency improves, your margins, your coordination, ability to talk with your customers improves.”

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2. Multiple channels with a seamless experience
As the dust from this pandemic-accelerated change clears, many businesses are struggling to figure out which sales channels to focus on. The answer, Rusenko emphasizes, should be all of them. “We’re really seeing this trend of all the channels converging and coming together.”

For a retailer, that might mean letting customers browse and buy online then pick up in a store. For a restaurant, it may mean tossing out printed menus and having customers snap a QR code with their phone to order food and have it brought to their table. To get there, companies need to be thoughtful about the technology platforms they choose. The goal should be to make sure that brands can build deeper and more durable relationships with their customers. “[Technology] is something that can bring all the pieces together so that it really is cohesive and not just a bunch of different products that aren’t integrated,” Rusenko says. “Those cracks will start to show pretty quickly.”

3. An evolving—but consistent—brand voice
The trick to a successful integration is maintaining a consistent brand voice to help build loyalty with customers. As a first step, Rusenko advises companies to take time to truly understand what their brand stands for. “For a lot of entrepreneurs, it starts off as an extension of themselves,” he says. “And then, over time, they start to write down exactly what that means.”

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For Chris Duncan, co-owner and marketing coordinator at Honor Roll Clothing, having those values written down has helped keep his company on track. But he also acknowledges the evolution of the brand’s identity—and its audience—over time. A decade ago, the company’s signature T-shirts that helped launch the brand meshed with what Duncan says was his fresh-out-of-college worldview. But now, more than a decade later, he recognizes that the most loyal consumers have grown up alongside the brand, graduating from buying $25 shirts to $130 hoodies. “Our core values as a brand are exactly the same,” he says. “But with the maturing of life and different stages—marriage, kids—you change.”

4. Turning retail into an experience
These days, customers are barraged with more sales and marketing messages than ever before. Entrepreneurs have to be ever more creative to reach overwhelmed consumers in a fresh way. One way Honor Roll has done that is by stepping out of the fashion box. Each of the company’s new clothing collections now comes with a custom music playlist. “Not only do you see the garment, but we want you to actually experience the thought process behind it visually and audibly,” Duncan explains. “I like to think about it as not telling different stories but telling deeper stories.”

Even in this highly digital age, companies like Honor Roll still embrace the value of meeting people face to face. At the company’s annual barbecue in Atlanta, customers—not sales—are the focus. “We’re just here to love them and that’s it,” he says. “We’re meeting new people, we’re connecting with them, and [that translates to] brand recognition down the line when they see Honor Roll again.”

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Watch full panel for more insights on this topic

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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