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Changing habits have retailers seeking new strategies

Published: Sunday, July 6, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, March 5, 2015 9:46 a.m. CDT

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McHENRY – Many small businesses are falling behind in the era of e-commerce.

“The world is spinning so fast today that many independents don’t have a chance to keep up,” said retail consultant James Dion, the founder and president of Chicago-based Dionco.

With one-click purchases, free shipping and mobile apps, waiting in line at the cash register is no longer fashionable. But as shopping habits change, some companies are responding with technological solutions to speed-up and improve on the traditional retail experience.

The changes aren’t just online and in stores on the Magnificent Mile. They’re happening in brick-and-mortar businesses throughout McHenry County.

AT&T recently rolled out its “store of the future” concept in McHenry, its third such store in the state and 12th nationwide. Reclaimed, a custom furniture and home decor company in Crystal Lake, attracts customers by showing off its projects and ideas on Facebook and Pinterest. The company’s social media efforts have brought in new customers from other states.

Other local stores and businesses also are tapping technology to attract customers, offer special promotions or improve services. For example, patients at Randall North Dental Care in Crystal Lake can confirm upcoming appointments by text message and watch movies on flat-screen TVs while getting their teeth cleaned.

In fact, the plummeting price of flat-screen TVs is helping to change retail layouts across the country.

“The hottest trend in in-store signage and display is digital,” said Dion, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting And Running A Retail Store.” “And that’s because of the radically declining price of flat-panel TVs.”

Stores use these screens to display product information, educate customers and show them what products might look like in their homes, he said. Some retailers are using digital displays for pricing, which allows them to update the prices of products on their shelves instantly.

In the future, these screens could be used to provide customized restaurant menus and interactive displays that will recognize individual shoppers and offer them a customized display based on their previous purchases, Dion said.

“Some of the stuff we can already do we don’t do because it’s a little bit creepy,” he said.

But that may change in the future, especially if such services are opt-in and give customers something they want, such as a discount or loyalty reward.

AT&T’s new store in McHenry, 3351 Shoppers Drive, was adopted from the company’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It doesn’t have a cash register. Tablet-toting employees can ring up purchases from anywhere in the store. Printed brochures have been replaced by digital signage, e-brochures and interactive video monitors. AT&T’s “store of the future” is mobile-focused and features different zones that highlight the company’s varied products from smartphones and wearables to entertainment to home security.

“Customers visiting our McHenry store will discover an interactive shopping experience built around their mobile lifestyle,” said Shelley Goodman, vice president and general manager of AT&T Illinois & Wisconsin. “Our goal is to be America’s premier retailer by providing an exceptional experience in every interaction.”

Since opening in late May, McHenry’s AT&T store has been a hit with customers.

“They feel like they are seeing something they’ve never seen before,” store manager Francisco Acosta said.

AT&T “is taking a really bold step” with the concept, Dion said. The goal isn’t necessarily to boost in-store sales, but to market the AT&T brand.

“AT&T is trying to really make you comfortable with the brand,” he said. “They want you to be aware of the breadth of the company’s offerings, and they want you to say ‘wow.’ “

Large, national companies have resources and cash to invest in improving the retail experience with things such as holograms that will allow customers to instantly see how they’d look in different styles and colors, in-store 3-D printing of full-size products and services such as on-demand coupons delivered via smartphone to entice shoppers to check out personalized deals.

“But not all large companies are light years ahead,” Dion said. “They’re not all doing this well.”

He said companies such as Kohl’s, Sears, JC Penny, K-Mart and Best Buy haven’t kept pace with trends pioneered by veteran companies such as Apple and startups that are revolutionizing retail space and how people shop.

Some independent stores also are investing in the future of retail. Dion pointed to Abt Electronics in Glenview and Naperville Running Co. in Naperville as “diamonds in the rough.”

Last month, Abt posted a blog titled “Top Ten Things To Do at Abt (Besides Shop).” The post mentioned testing your photography skills at the store’s 7,500-gallon salt water aquarium and watching a movie at the David Abt Theater, which features top-of-the-line theater equipment and “a 3-D star field package on the ceiling to give viewers a drive-in movie feel.”

But other small independents are doing little to better the retail experience or even keep pace with the trends that have developed in the past decade, Dion said. While the “shop local” movement has gained momentum, it will take more than that for independents to survive. Independents will have to adapt and innovate to stay relevant and competitive in the marketplace.

“Many independents believe the world owes them a living,” Dion said. “It will take a sea change in behavior for so many of these retailers. They will have to come to grips with the fact that the customer is in the drivers seat, and they will need to re-design their business to be far more customer-centric.

“This means thinking like a customer and really following the golden rule.”

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