Retraining Retailers’ Muscle Memory
Have you ever tried to explain what you do with your feet when you throw a ball, only to realize that you can’t remember until you go through the motions? We rely on muscle memory for a variety of tasks ranging from the simple (throwing a ball, entering your smartphone password) to the complex (playing a Beethoven concerto). Muscle memory lets us act on autopilot, so we can more easily fulfill a routine we’ve done hundreds of times before without using conscious thought.
Operating on muscle memory sounds like a good thing. After all, it means you’ve mastered a skill. But for advertisers it can lead to a dangerous slide into complacency. Even when they try new things, they often fall back on the same familiar patterns, approaches, and frameworks. The problem is, consumer buying habits are already changing as they shift moment to moment between digital and physical touchpoints — from swiping up in an Instagram story to hearing a podcast ad to visiting a brick-and-mortar store.
Retailers, however, aren’t adapting at the same rate. According to Harvard Business Review , omnichannel shoppers — those who buy both online and offline from the same retailer — spend 4 percent more than single-channel customers every time they shop in-store and 10 percent more every time they shop online. And with every additional channel they use, shoppers spend more money at the store. This valuable segment expects brands to keep up, understand their history and habits, and tell a sequential story across touchpoints — no matter how vast. To earn their trust and attention at all, advertisers need to begin with meaningful, customized messages.
We often hear that first impressions are the most important, but in retail every impression counts. Each step of a retail journey is an opportunity for new business, loyalty, and revenue growth. As Rishabh Dayal, digital strategy leader for retail at Adobe, says, “The nirvana that retailers are trying to get to is essentially journey-based advertising.”
In the path to purchase, convenience is king, but there’s a fine line between being frictionless and becoming forgettable — and advertisers can’t afford to fall on the wrong side of that line. To achieve a balance that feels seamless but intentional, retailers must make smarter use of data and embrace new technologies. They must retrain their muscle memory.
Breaking the routine.
According to Oxford University, new white matter (brain tissue related to physical movement) in the central nervous system begins developing after only six weeks, turning a fresh skill into muscle memory. This means it doesn’t take as long as you might expect for new habits to feel comfortable — good news for retail advertisers who need to break old routines and replace them with unfamiliar processes, often starting at the highest organizational level.
Dayal describes the typical scenario: “You’ve got your marketing teams that are mostly focused on physical channels, and digital teams that are focused on digital. It’s shifting, but there’s still a wide gap between the two.” This traditional setup limits the opportunity to share knowledge or data that can enrich the retailer’s overall omnichannel experience. When data is siloed and the advertising team can’t easily measure the impact of their campaigns across channels, you can fall behind more nimble competitors — a problem in any industry, but a particular pain point in retail, where omnichannel purchase patterns have dramatically elevated baseline expectations.
Marketing departments need to work like independent fingers on a single hand. An effective way to accomplish this is by centralizing analytics in one cross-channel platform so that all teams and campaigns are working in lockstep. This can ensure teams know what’s working and what isn’t beyond their particular pod, so they can unite their efforts on the most effective strategies — not just for their channel , but for their customers .
Building better habits.
Historically, retail advertisers were focused on in-store experiences, similar to someone who trained as a single-sport athlete. But the integration of e-commerce has forced modern advertisers to train like decathletes. As the first step on the fickle path to purchase, they need to attract prospective shoppers on the channel of their choice — whatever that might be — as cost effectively as possible or they risk wasting ad budget.
Our “Retail Unwrapped” report found that “buy online, pay in-store” orders more than doubled throughout 2018. The physical store remains a vital organ in the retail ecosystem, but its data is often segregated from what’s collected online.
Retail advertisers need to know exactly what customers want in order to make advertisements more meaningful, but they’re fighting data disparity. What happens after a customer browses online? How can the retailer know if they’ve completed a purchase in-store? How many in-store shoppers go on to buy the item from a mobile app? Bridging the gaps in data is a challenge that only grows as more shoppers adopt omnichannel behavior over time. And the challenge doesn’t stop at data disparity. Understanding the context is just as hard.
And the rise of online marketplaces — the likes of Amazon, Jet, even Etsy — provide a third blind spot for retailers who need to contend with conversions on third-party platforms. As Klein says, “Marketplaces are great, but you’re typically not owning that attribution. You know you’ve sold certain products but you don’t know who you’re selling it to and who owns that customer.”
Getting all data sources to work in concert can be as simple as choosing the right advertising technologies to identify and fill those blind spots. Analytics and data management platforms, for instance, can clarify omnichannel and multi-device attribution — the million-dollar (or often billion-dollar) question for retailers who struggle to trace purchase behavior beyond last-touch attribution.
With an integrated platform, you can create unified customer profiles, while integrated POS systems help link transactions. And with a little creative thinking, advertisers can put offline transaction data to good use for personalization. With in-depth knowledge of a gardener’s usage patterns, for example, a retailer could prompt them with discounts on seeds and fertilizer during spring, or bulbs in the fall.
To reach more sophisticated buyer insights and close the loop on attribution, retailers should create segmentation models from purchasing and behavioral data to get a better grasp of personal preferences and demographics. Forging partnerships with third parties can greatly enrich what retailers know about the people buying their products, but as Dayal says, there’s a right way to do it: “When it comes to finding the right partners, ensure there’s a good overlap between your data. You want to extend your database, not shrink it.” Like that cross-training golfer flexing different muscle groups, sharing complementary data creates a multi-dimensional picture of shoppers’ interests.
What to start training for.
Addressing the ultimate omnichannel advertising challenge and capturing new business through better campaigns requires a shift in both working culture and technology that goes beyond data collection and purchase attribution. Advertisers must develop completely new muscles.
While 81 percent of retail respondents in our commissioned Forrester study “The Business Impact of Investing in Experience” prioritize retention and loyalty, just 31 percent were assessed as entirely experience-driven . The same 31 percent grew revenue 1.4 times faster and increased customer lifetime value 1.6 times more than other companies in the past year.
For advertisers, proving the business case behind dedicated customer journeys should be easy — but to do so, they need to understand the latest channel additions that an omnichannel advertising strategy is rapidly growing to include.
“Retail Unwrapped” found that prospective buyers are using voice assistants to research products, create shopping lists, compare prices, and find promotions and store information, providing a wealth of first- and third-party data for advertisers. By better integrating digital services, like voice, into the physical store and across e-commerce sites, retailers will gain a more sophisticated understanding of customer interactions and interests.
Retailers are also increasingly developing mobile apps for their physical stores that use geolocation services and previous search data to make smarter recommendations. Dayal notes how Sephora, for instance, can calculate how long it takes the average person to use a particular product. Then, they can send push notifications to shoppers who have opted in to notifications and who are physically near a store, reminding them they might be low on a favorite item.
The push for perfection.
As retailers look to anticipate their customers’ every move, it’s critical that they avoid relying on old habits that are becoming more ineffective. Experience-led retailers are already addressing their customers’ greatest pain points and obstacles with thoughtful advertising strategies. Any advertiser wishing to do the same should consider these action items:
. Explore and invest in technologies like voice, as well as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), which allow potential buyers to “try before you buy” for products like real estate and custom cars.
. Research your customers’ sentiments on acceptable data use — and recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all comfort level. In some industries and product categories, buyers might be fine sharing third-party data, while other times it can create a headache.
. Consider which manual processes can be increasingly automated to alleviate in-house and agency talent to focus on bigger-picture strategy.
Advertisers who run with these initiatives, evaluate latest channel additions, and design empathetic journeys that address customer needs even beyond initial purchase won’t just keep up — they’ll set the pace. They’ll establish a meaningful presence at every stage of the customer’s retail journey and create lasting memories that take them through to the next transaction. They’ll continue to recognize the next wave of buyer expectations before current efforts become stale. They’ll effectively re-train their muscle memory, exchanging comfort zones for captivating experiences.
To get started download, Delivering Retail Ads That Keep Customers for Life
“The Business Impact of Investing in Experience,” Forrester, commissioned by Adobe, April 2018.
Emma Sopadjieva, Utpal M. Dholakia, and Beth Benjamin, “A Study of 46,000 Shoppers Shows that Omnichannel Retailing Works,” Harvard Business Review , January 3, 2017.
Michael Klein, director of industry strategy for retail, Adobe, personal interview, March 9, 2019.
Oxford University, “The Amazing Phenomenon of Muscle Memory,” Medium , December 14, 2017.
“Retail Unwrapped,” Adobe, 2018.
Rishabh Dayal, digital strategy leader for retail, Adobe, personal interview, March 7, 2019.