By Grace Donnelly
September 26, 2018

It’s time to stop panicking about the “retail apocalypse” and consider what it is consumers want next.

As companies navigate the future of shopping, they’re finding that the line between online and in-store experiences becomes increasingly blurred and that it’s authenticity, rather than flashy applications of emerging technology, that keeps customers satisfied.

“A lot of what we do online is really irritating to consumers, so we have to step back and rethink how we’re doing things,” Kathleen Fish, chief research, development, and innovation officer at Procter & Gamble, told Fortune’s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago on Tuesday.

That’s imperative when a majority of today’s consumers say that a bad website experience can hurt their perception of a brand. Incorporating technology in ways that actually improves interactions between companies and shoppers is difficult, but doing it well should start from the core of the business.

“Stick to what you’re good at and play to your strengths,” said Alexander Gourlay, co-COO of Walgreens Boots Alliance. “If you don’t you could waste a lot of money.”

Here are a few ways executives in retail have begun to plan for the rapidly changing needs of their consumers:

Create Better Tools for Employees

“Most consumers expect to have the same experience online as in the store,” said Matt Carey, EVP and chief information officer at Home Depot, “So we’re focused on making sure there’s no deviation between those two.”

For the home improvement store—and one of America’s largest online retailers—that meant equipping sales associates on the floor with handheld devices that make them better at their jobs.

The company listened to workers to build a system based on their actual needs, rather than what management suspected they might need. It was important to make sure the people creating the tool didn’t just impose their will on the intended users, Carey said, and that extends to building products for customers as well.

“What you want to do is learn fast, iterate and get that knowledge and input quickly,” he said, in order to continue improving the experience for both employees and consumers.

Make Old Products New

“We think about where the consumer is going and where technology is going,” Fish said of P&G, “and where we could be disrupted if we don’t do things differently.”

For a company that sells many household brands, this meant pairing artificial intelligence technology with their skincare knowledge to create an app that helps customers figure out which Olay products they should use in their daily regimen.

The app has increased engagement with consumers, especially among millennials, and the information gathered through those interactions led the company to develop a new facial moisturizer and sunblock product with a dry feel aimed at young adult shoppers who want SPF protection without the grease. Fish says the Olay brand, which had become stagnant, will post double-digit growth numbers this year.

“We stay focused on the tensions that come in consumers’ lives as things change and co-create with them,” she said.

Give Back with Sincerity

Connecting with customers in 2018 often means combining business goals with a social mission or philanthropic vision, but Fish emphasized that the charitable aspect can’t come as a side project or afterthought.

“Where we can link a cause to our brand equity it’s really quite powerful,” she said.

She pointed to the #LikeAGirl campaign, which has connected girls’ education and empowerment to P&G’s Always brand for several years, as a successful example that the company plans to expand.

“It’s got to be authentic and meaningful for all your partners,” Gourley said of charitable initiatives, noting that Walgreens’ dedication to the Red Nose Day fundraiser was in line with the objective of being “a community care company at heart.”

 

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