David Graveline, an SEO industry professional, has been in the industry since 2010. As a retail and digital product expert, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in retail today, especially when it comes to balancing on- and offline efforts. In this Pulse of the industry, we share a recent conversation between Holly Miller, Senior Manager Digital Marketing at Searchmetrics, and Grainline about balancing on- and offline efforts to stay successful in retail.
In his own words, Graveline describes his position and background like this: My official role right now is a senior product manager of SEO. My product is SEO and I help implement SEO and roll out the SEO best practices, mostly in a technical and a content basis. Prior to that, I was with Disney on and off for about six years and then also I did a stint with an agency called Resolution Media, where I was focused on local search and entertainment industry SEO as well.
Technology – Mobile Becomes Fast and Frictionless
Today, practically every customer has the equivalent of a computer in his or her pocket, which means each person has endless options for shopping from a mobile device. They can choose to have a personalized clothing box delivered. They can load up mobile carts inside the Amazon app. Alternatively, shoppers can quickly pull up a department store’s mobile site. The options are endless.
HM: Where are you seeing most consumers shop and purchase online? Is the preference department store mobile sites or apps?
DG: It used to be where a lot of people would prefer to shop on a mobile app because of the security. But in terms of ease of navigation and just ease of use, mobile web shopping is actually really popular as well. Both are very popular. Right now, everyone is talking about the mobile shopping experience, calling it “fast and frictionless.” Amazon is the ultimate example of that, with their one-click purchasing. Super fast and very easy to use.
DG: Amazon put a ton of money into a UX development to understand psychology and how people can make purchases the most seamless way. Amazon is the leader essentially for all eCommerce, and everyone else is trying to catch up in terms of design, logistics, speed and ease of delivery.
DG: Google is the ultimate search engine and has 70% to 90% of the market share. Yahoo and other search engines just look to Google and try to emulate Google’s features for their own search engines. (In the same way,) I think a lot of retail companies are emulating Amazon as much as possible, because it’s a proven concept that that design and that speed and that flexibility and those delivery options are what people want and what they expect.
DG: In that sense, I think whether you’re a big department store or a highly specialized brand in a niche industry, you want to offer your mobile purchasing abilities – whether through an app or a website – that’s on par with what Amazon is offering.
HM: In your professional opinion, if you can’t offer that level of experience, are you going to get left behind?
DG: I don’t think it’s quite being left behind because there always will be Amazon and other major players like Overstock, and Macy’s and Home Depot. There’s always the 800-pound gorilla in each industry. If you’re a smaller shop, you are going to be playing catch-up to Amazon. There are best practices you can do, but your advantage is doing something extra special to get people to purchase from you; offer a special experience or something really cool or useful or something that everyone else is not offering, something unique.
DG: Everyone says brick and mortar is dying and everyone is going to be buying everything on Amazon. Frankly, it’s just not true. It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Humans are social creatures, and we still long to be around other humans; shopping is both a social and utilitarian activity. Physical retail stores are here to stay, but need something unique to stay trendy.
See Before You Buy
An article in MarketingProfs examines the fashion-shopping habits of Millennial women: “Some 37% of Millennial women say when they’re looking for new clothing, they visit the mall first” – It’s notable however, that 59% frequently consume fashion-themed content on Instagram or YouTube. For 41%, fashion bloggers and influencers are even the primary source of inspiration for shopping.
HM: On any other day, beyond Black Friday, what kinds of things draw people into a physical store?
DG: I think it’s a generational thing. I think retail is going to continue to grow because people 40+ still prefer that in-person experience, whereas the Millennial generation and the one coming after that (Generation Z) does a lot online.
Gen Z grew up interacting with the screen in front of them, whereas previous generations would have to interact with people to do the same activities. I’ve heard reports that Millennials actually are one of the least social generations because they prefer to do things like texting instead of talking.
DG: I still think there are certain core needs of humans to socialize and I think shopping, retail interactions and events are still going to need to happen in person. Not everything will be virtual. Considering that 75% to 80% of all retail activity is in person, you still need to focus on that piece and grow that piece with some investment, love and attention to that aspect.
How Amazon is disrupting the Retail Industry
HM: How is Amazon disrupting the retail industry?
DG: You have your mobile online purchasing and you look to emulate Amazon for the fast and frictionless experience. It doesn’t just end there with mobile online purchasing. Amazon is now taking their technology into the physical stores. The stores are called Amazon Go.
They have one in Seattle that a good friend of mine just visited. He brought his family there. Inside, they used facial recognition technology, where you go into the store and you have an app that you and everyone in your party is connected to.
There’s no one operating any cash registers. You put whatever groceries you want in your bag. Everything is scanned and then as you walk out, your credit card is charged. Apparently, this has been a great success and they announced six more stores they’re rolling it out to.
This is Amazon trying to disrupt industries and make things easier, especially when you do grocery shopping. I personally love to shop for groceries at Trader Joe’s and Costco because I like interacting with the people who work there. I’ll sometimes develop relationships with them because they’re being friendly. At Trader Joe’s, you can literally say, “I want to try this product,” and they will open any package in the floor and you can try it out. It’s fun. I get some recipes. I enjoy it as a social activity not just shopping.
HM: That’s a big reason why we shouldn’t assume that Amazon Go stores will replace retail jobs overnight; there are still consumers out there that enjoy the interactions they have when shopping. What about grocery stores? Trader Joe’s is a great example to illustrate your point of providing a unique experience. Or do you think Amazon has the digital model dialed in?
DG: What’s interesting about the Amazon Go model, I think, is that it is the way of the future for groceries and convenience stores, since these types of companies can save cost on labor. I can see that rolling out to not only supermarkets but also gas station convenience stores, and low cost retail outlets like Dollar Tree and 99-Cent stores, where it’s not as much about the shopping experience as it is getting the basics.
HM: Do you see this type of model being successful in the discount chain stores like Ross or TJ Maxx or Marshalls?
DG: It could possibly roll out to apparel retailers, where you have these long lines where people are waiting to get their items scanned. They can check out and you don’t need to bother with that.
Alternatively, on the other end of the scale for higher-end apparel like a Macy’s or Nordstrom, you want that extra customer service. People want to look around in the store and ask, “Hey, what do you think about this? Can you make a suggestion?” That’s where that human element needs to be present. It’s not just about the technology. You need to have that extra special customer service. Eventually, maybe it’s not at the register, maybe it’s tailored to the customer service part. I think that’s a much more likely scenario of what will happen with retail across the board, and Amazon is really driving this.
HM: You see Apple retail stores with a similar approach of roaming kiosk offering check-out capabilities to customers. It saves time. If the essence of brick and mortar is human connection, how do you see retailers adopting this?
DG: I had experienced just a couple hours ago. I had a slow, lazy day. I realized Chick-fil-A is close by and I can’t go there on Sunday because it’s closed and I haven’t had it in a while, so I’m going to go to a Chick-fil-A. I pull in. It is packed. The drive-through line is a mile long. But surprisingly, the line inside was quick. I ordered, and there’s families and kids running around. There’s nowhere to sit. Luckily, two parties got up. I take the table so that a family could sit down in the booth. That’s when this elderly staff lady came up to me and she says, “Oh, sir. The booth is here, would like to sit in the booth?” I said, “No. It’s crowded today so let a bigger party sit there. It’ll be better for the store.” She said, “Thank you so much. You are so nice to be considerate of other people.”
I thought, “Wow. It’s really nice of this lady to acknowledge that.” I struck up a conversation with her as she cleaned my table off and she told me that her job is to make sure the customers are happy. She’s an older lady, maybe mid to late 70s, if not 80s. She’s out wiping tables, handing out wet naps to people to wipe their hands and just smiling and being nice.
I just thought that was such a great thing. She even said she was the oldest person the manager ever hired and she was grateful to have a job being a senior citizen in an industry with young people. I thought that was so nice and here she is older, was retired but needed some extra money and wanted to help. I just thought that was so great and it made me feel good about going in. Then a few minutes later, once my meal came out, she came back and handed me a warm, chocolate chip cookie.
She said, “This is for your kindness because you’re so considerate.” That gesture touched me because it was so nice of her. It was that kind of experience of people greeting and being nice that makes me want to come back.
HM: You’re right. There’s no amount of technology that can delight your customer as much as your own employees can. Customers expect a fast website or efficient checkout process, but when they receive an unexpected exchange of kindness on top of that, that fosters a very positive connection to the brand.
DG: It’s true. Human kindness isn’t something that can be offered digitally with technology. That’s a human component that people need and desire. In retail, you have to have that human factor. I think that’s the X-factor that’s going to make brands successful in whatever retail space they’re in. It’s having that extra human consideration or if not consideration a coolness factor.
HM: A fast website, easy check out – those are today’s table stakes.
DG: Exactly. It’s like the basics of SEO – having page titles and meta descriptions, basic content and a product image; you need all of that just to play the game. After that, that’s where the real work begins. You have to stand out.
Danger, Will Robinson
HM: So when we see headlines in the news like “malls are closing across America” or “retail workers losing jobs,” it’s not cause for alarm?
DG: Within 10, to 20, to 30 years, the minimum wage jobs will be taken over by technology. And, guess what? When that job is gone, there will be another job to replace it. It’ll be similar in purpose, but it won’t be that exact same job. Instead of servicing people at a cash register, maybe you’ll be monitoring the equipment that does that or maybe you’ll be an apprentice to a program or to a service technician who maintains all that. There will always be new jobs that come up. Heck, what we’re doing right now with SEO didn’t exist 20 years ago. This is a whole new industry and, guess what, there’s going to be another “whole new industry” for the next 20 years that doesn’t exist right now. I think it might be robotics, but I’m not sure.
The Coming of Voice Search-To-Purchase
HM: The hot technology in the search industry right now is voice search. People have Alexa devices now. Is voice search something retailers should understand in terms of how it influences in-app purchases or direct traffic to the retailer’s website?
DG: In my opinion, it’s still too early to tell how voice search will factor into eCommerce. We’re talking about it. No one quite knows what to do with it. I personally don’t think it will become a significant player in the retail industry or eCommerce industry until there is some form of visual component to it.
HM: Tell me more about what you mean by that.
DG: You talk to your home device. Right now, it’s an Amazon Echo or Google Home. I talk to Google and I talk to Siri. It’s usually for basic functions, like call mom or to text someone or get the weather. People use it for a while and then after the novelty wears off, they just use it for the same functions.
HM: You’re absolutely right. People are asking this smart home device to play music more than they are asking it to restock their refrigerator. Voice commands are fast but they can’t facilitate a transaction.
DG: Voice commands make things faster. Mobile phones made it faster to check our email, so you don’t need to go to a desktop computer. I think voice technology is making it so you don’t have to turn things like the radio or lights on/off/up/down with your hands. You don’t have to look up the weather. You can just ask the device. I think the next stage is actually consumers closing the gap giving more voice activated commands and navigation (“where is this?”) than voice activated transactions
HM: Why is that? What are some of the challenges retailers face in terms of getting consumers to make transactional-based purchases with their smart home device?
DG: The first challenge is that customers need visual confirmation before they buy. If there’s no visual component, you can describe the type, but unless you know the exact type and say, “I want the light beige, human flesh color, Michael Kors flat in size 7.” Today, the device says, “Okay. I found this for you at X department store.”
The second challenge is educating the consumer on giving the command to buy. Let’s say Alexa already has information stored (like your address and credit card). It would then ask you, “Would you like two-day shipping?” and you’d say, “Yes. Ok buy that” or whatever the voice command will be. I could see that happening, but I don’t think most people would be comfortable doing that.
The third challenge is infrastructure. Very, very few companies have the ability to integrate their platforms, their shipping and their whole inventory to tie in to the Alexa system or a Google Home system.
Because of this, I think the next wave of corporate eCommerce is going to be trading skills and quotes for Alexa and Google Home voice commands so it can trigger a sale and a purchase.
HM: Tell me more about the educating the consumer piece. What does that entail?
DG: You have to train the consumer. When I say train, I mean advertise and educate. We might be only five years out but, frankly, just because these devices are capable of processing transactions, once the infrastructure is there, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to. I don’t think they are going to do it until there is some kind of screen element like a Star Wars-style hologram where Alexa or Google Home projects an image on a wall.
You need consumer demand. You need consumers to understand how to make a purchase command. It’s those early adopters, those tech savvy people that want to do it, whereas most people are conditioned to go to the store. But, like I said, there’s going to have to be a visual component to voice search to showcase what do you want to buy on a screen or projected on to a wall or a hologram image or something where you can visually confirm what you’re buying.
Cultivating the Cool Factor
HM: It’s almost like, if you’re going to shape consumer behavior, your product development has to be open and adaptive to the human lexicon because, on their own, no two people will make a purchase using the same words. Brands need to educate consumers on how to talk to their devices in order to purchase X or watch Y.
DG: To your point, what’s interesting and complicated for brands is that you don’t want to advertise too soon because the infrastructure isn’t built. It’s hard for product management to justify requesting, say, $5- $10 million to build an infrastructure for which there’s no demand. The finance people are over there thinking, “Okay. You’re going to do this but the market is not there?”
HM: I never thought about it the way you said where you’ve got to create the demand but you also have to be ready to deliver having invested and built an infrastructure. How do you do both?
DG: I think Amazon and Google do a good job with that. Those two companies know what they’re going to release in the next year or two. They know what the capabilities are. Amazon is definitely saying “Let’s put it out there. We’ll spend however many millions to market to the world to get our products out there.” They embrace marketing; so does Apple. Apple has a great marketing concept. They’re not afraid to spend a lot of money in marketing, and they do it with minimal words. It’s all like nonverbal cues of people having fun with just silhouettes of Apple things.
HM: What’s behind this cool factor retailers need to have?
DG: For the longest time, Apple was the coolest thing in the world, and because of that cool factor that made them so great. Google is not so much cool, it’s more useful. They’re not big on cool, but the point is you have to have that kind of marketing mindset to make something cool and entice someone to want your product.
I think we can say it’s almost like a three-pronged approach:
- First, you have to have the technology, be fast and efficient.
- Second, you have to have some kind of personal element to your retail unless you’re like a solely digital player but you need to have that special personal moment.
- Third, for some products in some industries, you have to have a cool factor.
HM: How do you see brick-and-mortar retailers enhancing the experience for customers?
DG: I would love the future of retail to be a reimagining of malls; upping the cool factor is where the big shopping centers need to go. Once the technology and the hardware and the software are there, there will be fewer employees to pay. But people still like that extra human element, like the one I had at Chic-fil-A.
HM: What’s working now that is getting people into the store? It seems like it could still be that human interaction but what do you see is still really effective?
DG: Sales still drive a lot of foot traffic. I still see a lot of TV advertisements like a President’s Day sale and you’re like, “I need some underwear. I should go in.” Those advertisements are still very effective for the big tentpole sales events like President’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July. They bring people in to the malls for the discounts. That’s still needed and necessary. That’s not going to go away anytime in the foreseeable future. What else is needed, aside from those sales and those events? I think you need that cool factor. You have to think, “if I’m going to invest X amount of money into say, a talking robot, is it going to help people buy the product?”
HM: Let’s talk showrooming. How can retailers deal with this?
DG: It’s challenging. It’s a human survival technique to spend as little money as possible. That’s not going to go away, so how do you counteract that? Have some price protection on your product or some products where a lot of other competitors have them too. I’d say those type of showrooms are good when the products have some kind of exclusivity.
If it’s a product that you can showcase and you can buy anywhere else for 20% less, it’s not very effective. I think showrooming is great if you have limited competition like Tesla.
That’s a classic example of showrooms and trying things out in a showroom and then decide: are you going to make the purchase there or are you going to shop online?
HM: This is a tricky thing with online and offline retail. Consumers will always shop around for a cheaper price, and they’ll usually do it online. But they may not realize they’re sacrificing quality because it’s coming from a different manufacturer.
DG: You get what you pay for.
The thing about showrooming works when there’s exclusivity for boutique items, like art or guitars— really boutique handcrafted guitars. You can go to a showroom and check them out and play with them and go to their website. Chances are, you’re not going to find that item for sale at many other places. What’s not going away is showrooming in smaller retailers. It’s, “Hey, I’m not ready to buy it now but I can go to your website and buy it later.” It already is a fact if you’re a small retailer.
Advice to Fellow SEOs
HM: Having read all this, what kind of plan should a marketer or SEO in the retail industry put into play?
DG: Realistically, continue to work on your table stakes. Get your mobile app and your website performing as close as possible to how Amazon does it. Have a cool factor going on, to differentiate yourself from Amazon and the other big players. Get those two dialed in on the digital front and on the brick-and-mortar front. That will get you where you want to be.
Trust me, it can take an army of people just to make both of those happen. Get started on the foundation so that you’re ready when the demand picks up.