Lessons from SXSWi in CRE

When I attended the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival this March, I joined over 72,000 other attendees to learn about the latest in technology, trends and innovation. SXSWi is an immersive experience, equal parts convention, lecture series, product showcase, and party. With hundreds of sessions to choose from, I was able to benefit from presentations on branding, marketing, design, content creation, startups, and technology. Though the topics were varied, a few key themes consistently emerged.

Collage of photos from South by Southwest festival, including a picture of Anthony Bourdain.

Customer experience is assumed, and those expectations are liquid.

Retailer Frank & Oak, originally launched online, is one of many in its class now rolling out brick and mortar locations. They note that maintaining a physical presence in their customer’s life through human interaction, community connection, and a personal relationship provides immeasurable value. At the same time, customer expectations for brand experience have become liquid, meaning they expect the same level and type of experience to be consistent across all platforms; whether in-store, online, or via social media.

Participation is the new key to customer loyalty.

More than ever, customers want to interact with the brands they support. Prior to opening a new location, retailer Kit and Ace holds intimate supper club events with engaged individuals in the community. This pre-branding effort connects with potential customers in a personal way, and opens an ongoing dialogue that pays dividends over time. In their eyes, e-commerce facilitates product sales, but customer participation and human connection are an irreplaceable element of their brand experience.

Data and technology are ubiquitous; only meaningful integration is valuable.

Smart Cart” is a next generation shopping cart concept currently in beta mode. It looks like a traditional shopping cart, but operates at a scary-smart level, incorporating facial recognition, integration with refrigerators (and their contents), dietary needs, and family status. On a gluten free diet? Smart Cart will warn against allergen-containing products. Buying a sweet treat for the kids? Smart Cart will provide an alert if the kitchen is already stocked with enough sweets for the week. Additional functionality includes a recipe database, wine pairing suggestions, and connectivity with grocery delivery services. Will customers see Smart Cart as a help or a hindrance? Smart Cart creator Chaotic Moon is banking on the former.  

"Retailers can't compete with Amazon on price – it has to be experience."

With more choices and easier access to options than ever, consumers will continue to grow relationships with brands that value authenticity, experience, originality, and quality. Data and technology will play their role in personalizing those brand relationships, so long as there is an inherent benefit to the end user. Experience creates an emotional investment that is hard to replace.

It is no secret that those who are unable to adapt to changes in the market are also unable to survive. With the merger of technology into the DNA of everyday life, many retailers are embracing the physical needs of the customer and meeting them with solutions on the digital and human levels. What was once a rivalry has become a marriage, and the retailers who are on the cutting-edge of this liquid experience strategy are setting the precedent for the future, as well as showing old dogs their new tricks.