How online retailers are re-writing the consumer story: an interview with Ben Lewis, CEO of River Island
Is AI changing the face of online shopping? Will the introduction of hyperloop technology help solve the distribution needs of the future? Are we close to seeing the ‘Uberfication’ of the checkout process?
Dynamic new brands and iconic retailers are transforming how we shop through innovative tech, constantly-evolving media and compelling storytelling.
Their key to success is being able to capture the customer moment – wherever they enter, whether through an app, instore or the web – and deliver value in an instant.
And value is different for every customer; one size doesn't fit all.
A group of online retailers, ecommerce directors and business owners will be discussing these topics at a private dinner hosted by Redbox, in partnership with Magento, next month.
Chaired by River Island’s chief executive Ben Lewis, they will explore the changing landscape of online shopping and how it is reinventing the customer experience.
In the lead-up, the fashion giant’s CEO took time out with Redbox to share his views on some of these thought-provoking issues, from the environmental aspects and exciting new technology involved, to what he terms the future ‘Uberfication’ of payment.
Ben Lewis, CEO, River Island
What do customers want and expect from their online shopping experience today?
I think it’s changing all the time. What we’ve seen is a very long-term trend in consumption whereby customers are demanding more and more. They want more speed, more choice, more convenience and more inspiration. Ecommerce has really only fuelled this established trend.
What has driven this trend?
It’s generally part of a societal shift. The social fabric of Western society – and we are seeing it in Asia and other regions too – has been adjusting over a hundred or so years. From a very rigid class structure, with limited wealth and social mobility, to one where people have more rights, a louder voice, access to more money, either through employment or credit, and as time has marched on, these rights are being exerted and demanded more and more. It’s not a new trend in that way.
How can the ecommerce industry keep up with the needs of the consumer?
What tends to happen is that what seems new, exciting and unique initially, starts to become commonplace. We are generally moving into a period where customers want to fulfil their emotional needs. In a developed economy like the UK, we are realising that we don’t need so much ‘stuff’. We all have wardrobes full of clothes and access to a car if we want one.
Ecommerce will have to further appeal to people’s emotional needs through relevance in solving their problems, rather than just selling them products. For instance, it won’t be about selling a suit; it will be about helping them win a job. It’s not about selling a car; it will need to be about giving consumers the opportunity to escape.
So, what will the customer experience of the future look like?
Big data, AI and machine-learning have started to take hold and now it’s about understanding individual customers and discovering what they want and how they might want it presented, so it becomes a more personalised experience.
But I have a feeling this may feel like a sterile, cold and unemotive experience for a lot of people. Consumers have started to reject, or have already rejected over a number of years, big brand advertising – anything where they are being sold at. I think we will see this again, with customers feeling sold-to or manipulated by a lot of the personalised, automated e-shops and merchandising on site. I don’t think it will be an obvious thing, but more of an undercurrent. So, we will have to find a way of making the experience more human even if there is a machine in the background doing the legwork.
But we are social animals and shopping is a social activity, either on the basis that either you do it socially or for a social purpose. As I already mentioned, we are at a stage where people are realising that they might not need more ‘stuff’. Connecting to customers emotively will be the key to the industry’s evolution. How we achieve this through a digital medium while relying on technology to personalise the experience is a problem that needs to be solved.
Are there any major innovations you believe will shape the future customer experience?
There are so many things happening on the shopping journey, such as the use of social media platforms. Then, there’s the new emerging payment area, that really takes payment off the table. I call it the ‘Uberfication’ of payment, the idea being that you don’t even have to think about paying, so it gets to a point where it becomes automatic. We were used to paying by cash or card when using a taxi but now, with Uber, we don’t think about the payment side of the journey at all. I am certain we will see this more and more online and in shops.
I can also see a trend towards the complete repurposing of the shopping centre, which in effect is a building where you have 200 tenants all attempting to deliver a customer experience independently of one another. I can imagine shopping malls becoming much more connected and a better synergy between online and the shopping space. I think fully-integrated, multichannel shopping experiences, where brands use centralised click and collect and maybe a shared concierge service, interconnected through a shopping centre app, could be something we see.
But we have a long way to go before we can think about the utilisation of the different assets and technologies that we now have available.
Any others that excite you personally?
Elon Musk has spoken about hyperloop to transport people quickly over long distances, but others are talking about using it to transport products. Several companies are already testing this out – it will move people and cargo in wheel-less pods in a vacuum tube at speeds exceeding 600mph.
Ecommerce is quite an inefficient way of distributing goods to the end customer. Where physical stores retailing is all about distributing in bulk and customers then travelling to centres where they have got lots of choice through a cluster of physical stores, online involves taking goods across the country to the individual shopper. Innovations like hyperloop will help solve some of these problems, while also helping the wider issues that can cause a negative impact on the customer experience and the environment: congestion, pollution and plastic packaging. When you look at the possibilities, you realise how big it could be for the industry.
With environmental issues high on the world agenda, what can the ecommerce industry do to counteract the conflicting views and fears consumerism can highlight?
It’s going to require a joined-up approach to solve these issues. At the moment you have a lot of individual e-tailers and their service providers, all acting and operating independently, but it will take a collaborative approach and probably finding a new way to distribute products to customers to counteract some of these complex problems.
But plastics are obviously an issue for customers as well. I really think we should be using recyclable plastic and I’m in favour of legislation that would ensure companies and individuals are forced, or highly-incentivised, to use recycled plastics so we are not damaging the environment, the oceans, or plundering natural resources unnecessarily.
River Island has been working with a charity we co-founded 25 years ago called New Life. It is one of the largest clothing-recycling entities in the UK. They take all the damaged goods from retailers and resell them – goods that would have otherwise been thrown away - raising money to help particular families and individuals with disabilities. I like that idea, as you are dealing with a cross sector initiative and many retailers have signed up to it over the years. There are quite a few things that can be done, that are good for business, good for the environment, good for society and are not damaging as far as the consumer is concerned.
Any last words on ecommerce and the consumer experience?
It’s a highly innovative sector and I take the long view. I can draw upon lots of things from the past that can tell you something about the future. Retailing has been an exciting, thriving, dynamic sector - probably since the 1920s - and I think it will continue to be so. What’s happening on the high street is distressing, but the industry has seen significant changes before, maybe not of this nature, but it’s not unprecedented and the unique and individual needs of the customer are being catered for like never before. I’m excited about the possible things one can do to connect brands, retailers and consumers together in the future and so many of these things haven’t even landed yet.
It’s an exciting industry and always will be. It’s constantly shifting. So, the customer experience is evolving in new and exciting ways too.
Where will AI take us? Can a more joined-up approach between bricks-and-mortar and online save the high street? What will the story of the future customer look like? Only time will tell.