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Lately, retail has become almost impossibly more brutal than ever before.

These are unprecedented times of rapid and deep changes for customers and society, driven primarily by technology, economic volatility, and political uncertainty (e.g. Brexit, US elections).

For Retailers and Brands, these are dangerous times of disruption and of tectonic shifts in structures, formats, and channels. A new epoch of retail has arrived, wherein, once again, only those most agile and adaptable to change will survive.

Amongst the new realities keeping retailers up at night and dragging down already thin margins:

  • Economic forces. For customers, the definition of "value" has changed because of economic forces like recession and austerity politics. The data points to growing numbers of customers concerned about price. As one supermarket CEO puts it, the "lower third of price-sensitive customers has become the lower half."
  • Disruptive price innovators. Hard discounters like Aldi and Lidl are becoming more aggressive (and more popular) every passing day. Both recently appeared in a '10 Best Supermarkets in the US' list from Food&Wine. European grocers' experience suggests that this variation of discount format might impact the global industry even more significantly than has Walmart, and within a shorter time period as well because this approach impacts the mid to upper tier of shoppers as much as it does the price-sensitive.
  • Higher operating costs, especially for store labor. Staff turnover combined with a smaller pool of qualified workers is driving up wages.
  • E-commerce. Online and mobile will account for 24% of global chain retail sales in 2020. E-commerce represents a structural shift at the very foundation of a retailer's or brand's existence, from simply producing and distributing products, to delivering a valuable and personally relevant "experience" wherever the customer is in space and time. And most of the growth in ecommerce will not be through today's pure-plays or in bricks&mortar.coms, but rather through 3rd party marketplace 'aggregators', introducing yet another form of competition for the embattled retail industry.
  • Customers are increasingly demanding a faster, simpler, less-painful shopping experience. Chains are allocating larger shares of their capital budgets to enabling technology and repositioning existing stores to be more attractive to convenience-seekers and millennials. Underperforming assets – particularly big boxes – are being shuttered at a faster pace.

Arguably, in today's multichannel world, retailers face a binary decision (relative to competition) to either be cheaper or more relevant (as any middle position is short lived and profit starved). Being cheaper means beating Walmart, Rakuten, Amazon and others at their own disruptive model game, which is highly improbable. Being more relevant means understanding customers better than others do, and from this, delivering an experience that customers personally value.

The best of times for Retailers and Brands

On the other hand, the opportunities for business growth arising from these challenges are immense. Seeing a tremendously fertile (and frightening) environment for change, even the hard-nosed, raised-in-the-business retail leaders are realizing that they must become more science-driven and more customer-aware if they want to even survive, let alone seize upon any opportunities for growth.

Agility is exactly the capability that retailers need, driven optimally by using data and science to delight customers. Retailers and brands must embody a cultural and mind shift to putting customers first; this is how they become empowered to seize on the opportunities now presented, and how they enable themselves to thrive therefrom. To change best and with purpose, it must be via Customer First – to deeply understand customers, to strategically invest in what matters most to them, to improve the shopping experience, and to personalize conversations with the most precious assets of the business – its customers.

The higher purpose for a Customer First approach

Delighting customers using a loyalty approach – what I call Customer First – is not just some warm, fuzzy, altruistic thing (although a Customer First organization will feel better to its employees as a place to work and customers will enjoy better experiences), but is, rather, a growth-driving, growth-sustaining machine proven to generate profit when executed optimally.

Customer First delivers profit and margin growth by focusing on growing top line sales first. Sales growth, as every good retailer knows, covers many sins: it improves the percentages on the measures retailers care about most (e.g., store labor percentage, OG&A expense percentage). Greater sales directly translate into greater purchasing leverage on suppliers. Simply, growing sales via Customer First grows greater shareholder value.

More importantly, beyond projecting well-being for customers, Customer First protects jobs and well-being for employees of the business. In this protective role, Customer First becomes a moral obligation for the business and a moral responsibility for its leaders – and this is the highest purpose.

The new reality is that change is here to stay, perhaps more fiercely than ever. Those of us who understand this reality, who accept it and adapt quickly, will emerge profoundly the better for it. Better in terms of market value and employability as a business and as individuals. Better because we don't squander precious time and energy resisting the inevitable. And certainly, better when it comes to the health, happiness, and well-being of our customers and ourselves.

This is the seventh in a series of LinkedIn articles from David Ciancio, advocating the voice of the customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.


Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.


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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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FOR RETAILERS

Smarter operations and sustainable growth, powered by Customer Data Science.

FOR BRANDS

Better understand and activate your Shoppers to grow sales.

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