Technology is like a River

Have you ever looked out the window of a plane and made note of the myriad of green and brown squares, traveled with the silver strips of sidewalks and roadways, or followed the flowing currents of a complex river system?

The last time I flew, I was returning to Chicago from my time in Las Vegas for CES 2018 (Consumer Electronics Show). Nose pressed against the cool plexiglass, I stared at the land thousands of feet below for 3.5 hours and did a lot of thinking. Based on my recent dive into tomorrow’s technologies, I realized that the impact technology has on our world is very similar to that of a river to its land.

Rivers are powerful. They constantly move, shape, erode, and transform the ecosystems in which they exist. They transport sediments and vital nutrients - bringing life and opportunity to the communities they touch. They are responsive, unpredictable, and deceivingly more complex than visible at surface-level.

Our current technological landscape shares many of the same characteristics. The technology we have come to depend on today is agile and responsive, powerful and complex, receptive and transformative. It’s responsible for shaping the needs, wants, and expectations of people around the world. We rely on technology to provide for and sustain our well-being, much like our forefathers depended on the rivers to promote commerce and transportation.

The Erosion of Brick and Mortar

As our world continues to transform and be transformed by technology, consumer behaviors change in tandem with this progress. Technology has impacted  the environment so drastically in the past five decades that how we think, act, and shop are radically different.

Long-standing truths or ways of doing things have begun to wash away. We see this in the malls that close, the rise of online retailing, the struggles of local business, and the rate of restructures and liquidations of  big box powerhouses that were once industry leaders.

We live in a time where technology makes so much possible, yet demands a reworking of the current retail ecosystem in order to truly thrive.  Earlier this year, Microsoft released a commercial celebrating how: “We are living in the future we always dreamed of. We have Mixed Reality that changes how we see the world, and AI empowering us to change the world we see.”


But the main point of the commercial is that technology is only the catalyst - it provides the right tools and the right environment to achieve the unthinkable - but only to the extent in which people harness it.

We are learning in retail, that technology must be used purposefully, strategically, and because it makes sense in a shopper’s journey. Each store and each experience is different. A standard set of “Tech in Retail” rules does not exist. Both the store and the technology must be adaptable to one another in order to enhance the overall store environment. See AXIS’ recent white paper on this topic.

According to a USA Today article discussing why Toys R Us failed to survive bankruptcy, it was reported that CEO David Brandon “had mapped out a goal of upgrading online sales, renovating stores and introducing augmented reality into the shopping experience.” But it didn’t work.

This isn’t an uncommon scenario. Faced with declining sales, executives grapple at ways to recover losses through (1) doing too much or (2) not doing enough. As waves of retailers continue to close stores (notable closures for 2018 thus far: Bon-Ton, Sears/Kmart, GNC, Foot Locker, Gap/Banana Republic, Teavana, Walgreens, Mattress Firm, Ascena Retail Group, and more), just as many are returning to the drawing board to figure out how to compete in this New Era of Retailing.

Successful attempts at this are seen in the retailers and brands that learn to swim with, rather than against, the push and pull technology has on the lives of their shoppers.

One retailer to learn from is Target. An interesting article investigating “The Creepy Science Behind Why You Love Target So Much,” provides insight into the retailer’s foundational strategy: know thy shopper.

“...The Powers that Be at Target pretty much know you inside and out. ‘They look at who you are tangibly (how much money you make, your gender, where you live, do you have a family) and psychographically (your hobbies, lifestyle, ethics), and mix their product, price, place and promotion in various combinations that resonate with who you are as a person,’ says David Loranger, a retail and consumer behavior lecturer at Philadelphia University.”

This information is applied to each and every decision made in store design, merchandising, partnerships, product selection, and more, and creates shopping experiences that are easy, intuitive, natural, and fun.

In 2017, Target announced it would invest “more than $7 billion in capital over the next three grow sales faster, gain market share, adapt to guests’ rapidly changing preferences and give them more reasons to shop at Target.” By responding to a changing retail ecosystem - radically influenced by shoppers’ access to and use of technology throughout their shopping experiences - Target has managed to stay afloat.

Enter the Era of Cs

Retail marketing has always been about capturing the attention of the consumer, playing to their emotions, and smartly delivering product presentation. Today’s challenge is to do all of that, but in accordance with a stringent and particular set of expectations consumers across the board have come to embrace due to the tech-savvy world they live in.

Not only are shoppers more aware of online options, more importantly, they are downright inconvenienced by anything that takes longer, seems inefficient, or otherwise disrupts the seamless shopping journeys they have come to know and love.  

This is why it has become so important for physical retail locations to step up their game, learn how to custom cater to their shoppers, and create spaces that go beyond a transaction. A  need - a benefit for entering a physical store - must be created, because at the end of the day, if a shopper can find the same product cheaper and quicker elsewhere, they’re going to do just that.

We are living in what Axis Display Group defines as  Retail in the Era of Cs:

Consumer Choice + Consumer Convenience = Consumer Control

Consumer Choice

We are not in the dark ages anymore. As a society, we have access to more information from more sources than ever before. Whether a person is shopping for a crib liner, a lift kit, a protein supplement, or a new TV, the perceived amount of product choice available in today’s market is unprecedented. Unlimited access to instantaneous information has made consumers hyper-aware of what they should have, what others have, and what the best bang for their buck is.

In some cases, this is a great thing for the consumer, the retailer, and the brand. However, more often than not, an overabundance of information - not streamlined and not catered to the shopper - leads to challenges that dampen the overall shopping experience, in turn affecting bottom line profits for businesses.

  • Challenge 1- Decision Paralysis: Sally needs a new washing machine. Sally’s mom, neighbor and friend all have their own ideas about what she should get. Sally reads online reviews and realizes there are many more factors to consider than she originally thought. Google and Facebook must know Sally is in the market for washing machines because they too show her targeted ads. Sally goes to an appliance store armed with a list of options she thinks she may be interested in. The store associate shows Sally five more she never considered. Sally is overwhelmed. Sally leaves without a washing machine and goes to have a margarita.
  • Challenge 2 - The Path of Least Resistance: Sally returns home and eventually decides to just get the updated version of her current machine. She’s been pleased with the brand in the past and figures it can’t be all that different in a newer model. She orders it online.
  • Challenge 3 - Buyer’s Remorse: Sally can’t believe how poorly her new washing machine performs! Not only is she not seeing the updated benefits the product promised, she realizes there were far more economical options had she continued to look around.

Even in instances that are not commitment purchases, like large appliances, cars, furniture, etc., all of the above challenges can still present themselves in everyday shopping encounters. If a store needs to sell a certain brand of towels or would like to showcase a new line of headphones, it will only be as successful as its ability to understand how shoppers make decisions, what information they’ve been exposed to already, which competing brands are likely being considered, and how else they’ve been shopping.

This knowledge must be used as ammunition to guide the design of store formats so “Aha!” moments are created. When the price is right, the merchandising is on point, and the messaging resonates with shoppers on an emotional level, consumer confidence increases.


It would be a lie to say online retailing is not on the rise. But it would also be a lie to say brick and mortar is dead. Consumers know that just like choice in product, they have choice in how and where they’d like to make their purchases.

Today’s consumers opt for online because of convenience and price. It’s nice to shop for new curtains at 2:00AM. It’s convenient to have 11 tabs open to easily compare prices and read reviews. But the vast majority of purchases (over 80%) still occur in-store. In-store shopping caters to an equally important set of consumer expectations: the ability to see, touch, and experience the product in real-time and instant gratification - factors that won’t go away anytime soon.

Consumers drive both demand and supply. They dictate how stores need to function. If convenience is what they expect, and going to a store doesn’t offer them any more convenience or secondary benefit than shopping online, why go?

In the Era of Cs, retailers need to focus on:

  1. Making stores make sense
  2. Creating new reasons to shop

If a particular retailer has a robust online presence in addition to their traditional retail, then it makes sense to have systems in place to offer speedy store pickup, ship-to-store, and other convenient delivery methods.  If a retailer is aware of how and why shoppers use their mobile phones while physically in the store, then it may be important to integrate a custom ordering kiosk, signage, or other technology that acts as a Call-to-Action near the product display to provide an added benefit to making a purchasing decision then and there. 

Shoppers actively and inactively search for convenience. They are consciously aware of what they need, but often less aware of how their subconscious “wants” emerge. Physical retail has a unique benefit in being able to showcase a “You May Also Like” feature of a website in real-time by creating product collection pods around a main product. With proper branding and messaging, these display environments do not feel like a gimmick, they translate into seamless convenience, into a retailer who has come to "know me" and  “anticipate my needs.”

This concept also applies when retailers attempt to create new reasons to shop. “If it’s not price and it’s not convenience, what other reason would I have for going to a store?” That’s the question retailers need to answer.

Many retailers are looking to technology to assist them in this area. Technology creates the opportunity to make shopping more personal and impactful. For example, Sephora has had success with incorporating an interactive, AR-powered product testing mirror, and on a larger scale, the Lowe's Innovation Labs focus on how to help their shoppers realize their purchasing decisions through sophisticated visualization and customization techniques.

Some retailers feel their customer base doesn't need or want that level of in-store technology. Instead, they've created new reasons to shop by turning their spaces into meetups, event spaces, and places for education. They partner with other businesses and make shopping a social event, drawing on human being’s natural desire for connectedness and community.

Bottom line: what one person finds useful and convenient, may not be the same for another demographic. As mentioned earlier in this article: know thy customer. Know what level of convenience they’ve come to expect, and more importantly, why that expectation exists in the first place. Then, work on finding ways to implement it into the in-store experience with or without the assistance of in-store technologies.


Marketers and advertisers used to be able to tell consumers what they want, why they want it, and where they could get it for the best deal. Now, the consumer calls the shots. With choice and convenience at their fingertips,  shoppers dictate the retail experience. Rather than pushing against this new power dynamic or scrambling to try and adjust, the most successful retailers take on a collaborative approach...working with and drawing inspiration from consumer expectations. 

The wheel does not need to be reinvented. As stated earlier in this post, there is a balance between doing too much and not doing enough. From product innovation to guest services, store design to visual merchandising, retailers and brands can regain some of their perceived loss of control by surprising and delighting customers in subtle, unexpected ways.

Technology allows retailers to know the ins and outs of how their customers shop. It enables them to develop strategies to interject themselves into the customer's path to purchase in ways that do not feel forced or in-genuine, but intuitive and helpful. Online retailers do a great job of this through data gained from web analytics, email campaigns, and smart advertising. They find multiple ways to remind their customers of their product selection and how easy it is to purchase the item. They find ways to offer discounts, and "cart abandonment" promotions. They create urgency. 

By working with the online strategies already in place, brick and mortar retail can do the same. Digital and physical retail marketing teams need to come together to offer the customer cohesion and clarity. When this is achieved, retailers are able to create retail environments that directly support what they know the shopper is (likely) already going to do. Physical stores offer the same choice and convenience as online, but in ways that are memorable, aid in visualization, and offer the chance for additional education or associate interaction. Smartly-integrated in-store technology further supports the experience by giving the shopper the choice to utilize it if they want. 

All of these strategies are inspired by consumer expectations and demands, but are discreetly controlled by the retailer and/or brand. The experience has been created together.

Bottom Line

Our technology today is powerful, and consumers are powerful because of it. As technology continues to guide the retail industry's transformation, true success comes from acknowledging, accepting, embracing, and implementing.

  1. Acknowledge how tech advancements have changed what shoppers know about and have access to.
  2. Accept that what is known today may be old news tomorrow.
  3. Embrace the collaborative environment technology offers retailers and brands - when has there ever been this much consumer data available? Use it to your advantage. 
  4. Implement this knowledge into each and every retail strategy so rash decisions are not made, trends are never followed without a true need, and shared control of the retail experience is achieved.