Customer experience is one of the great frontiers for innovation. In an increasingly complex communications world, it’s also the principle brands must live or die by.

Brands not constructed to organise their interactions against soaring consumer expectations place barriers in the way to their long term success.

Retailers are currently facing a “crisis of inconvenience” that is forcing them to rethink how they deliver customer experience.

Our world has become obsessed with getting things faster, easier, more conveniently. It’s no surprise bricks-and-mortar retail has significant challenges. People’s attitudes towards shopping have changed forever; a reality that is putting 70,000 more UK stores in line for closure over the next decade. Yet despite this, 85% of shoppers still say they prefer shopping in-store.

The retail sector is being pulled in opposite directions by shoppers looking to satisfy two very different and constantly evolving sets of needs: convenience and leisure.

The issue? Brands in retail must change. Operating out-dated business models driven by the notion of convenience is not enough. This is compounded for brands selling through third party retailers and – critically – failing to manage their customer experience.

Recognise that customer experience is the difference between Doing Shopping and Going ShoppingThe polarizing forces of convenience and leisure are reinventing retail. Brands are striving to deliver customer experiences that make ‘doing the shopping’ ever easier and ‘going shopping’ more entertaining and engaging.

Convenience shopping, or fast retail, means that people value ease and convenience over brand loyalty Retailers must reconnect with people by giving them brilliant ways to spend time. In their store. In their experience. With their brand.

Innovators such as Amazon and Sephora are setting a high bar; breaking market norms and raising customer expectations. Proving that by adapting to polarising consumer demands, stores can offer value, authority, convenience and first-class customer experience.

Stores need to deliver a customer experience that understands shopper needs to rationalise the purchase decisions we make, that enables us to understand the benefits of ever more complicated products and services and allows retailers to own and control the environments in which they sell for the benefit of their customers.

Clear online-to-offline purpose will translate to a successful, long-lasting and fruitful omnichannel existence

The shift that’s bringing online brands to the high street is redefining the meaning of traditional retail. Think Amazon opening their first physical bookstore.

Contemporary consumers are drawn to brave and disruptive brands who aren't resting on their laurels but are testing new omnichannel strategies to engage customers across all platforms. Those brands pairing the best technology with an immersive in-store world, offering endless product choice and information in store, whilst feeding exclusive, experience-driven content and personalised offers are those successfully incentivising brand loyalty.

Stores that successfully merge online and offline boundaries through technology-enhanced experiences will steal the retail march in 2016. Just look at Sephora who, using our Connected Retail technology, has reduced physical stock inventory, while still providing hundreds of branded lines of products to the customer’s fingertips from its seriously compact Sephora Flash Smart Store.

Talk to me. One to one, not one to manyWorldwide usage of platforms from Amazon to Facebook set expectations for customer interactions with any organisation. These companies make it functional, easy and deploy the technical infrastructure to deliver unique personalised content. They have embedded cultures of customer data collection and deploy automated machine learning to facilitate 1 to 1 personalised content.

What can they teach us? That customer segmentation by grouping customers into buckets is being ditched in favour of genuine content relevance on an individual basis.

Of course the marketing community has known this for a long time. Personalisation and one to one relevance is nothing new. Yet as the emphasis on the total, integrated customer relationship continues to intensify, CMOs are responding accordingly. Two-thirds of respondents in a recent IBM survey regarded developing deeper, richer customer experiences as their top marketing priority. “The CMO has to become the custodian of the customer experience, not just the head of the ‘arts and crafts’ department,” the CMO of a global brand management company recently commented.

CMOs expect to interact with customers on an even more individual and digital basis than they ever have. “Marketing is no longer about winning creative awards; it’s about one-to-one communication,” the CMO of a U.S. telecom company warned. Many CMOs also realize they’ll need more external innovation to forge the multi-dimensional experiences customers desire. This explains why 69 percent plan to partner more extensively to drive better, deeper and more relevant relationships with customers.

The next generation of store will harmonise the physical and virtual retail experiences, strengthening the loyalty of customers who come into contact with them; building deeper, more consistent engagement between customer and brand, wherever they are located in the world.

Shoppers appreciate the trade-off between buying what they want and having a more leisurely and relevant shopping journey. Today, brands must contend to appeal to both need states to make it easy and to make it fun.

Thinking about stores as digital channels changes expectations. It has never been more important to put the customer first, they are a brand’s advocates, and its community. A brand’s standing in the output of all the initiatives retailers put in place to build advocacy with their community. Communication with your community through relevant and tailored content will build additional commerce opportunities and underpin loyalty. Beyond price and value, customer experience innovation is the defining criteria for future long-term success and the battleground by which retail brands will live or die.

By Mike Curtis, Group President of Start