by Dave Sprosty

Is your company a retailer? Should it be?

Jun 01, 2018
Digital TransformationRetail IndustryTechnology Industry

With the need for direct access to the consumer becoming increasingly prevalent, the one market that most exemplifies and enables face-to-face relationships is retail.

retail shopping cart commerce
Credit: Thinkstock

If you walk into a traditional retail store, there’s inevitably a salesperson standing near a display, folding or rearranging something, who asks some variation of the magic question: “What can I help you find today?” Their goal isn’t necessarily to straighten the display, or even to be polite, but rather to establish a relationship with that customer, discover their pain points and help them solve whatever they happen to be—finding the perfect graduation dress, the correct size battery for their power tools or a foolproof way to remove garden pests.

That “in store” customer experience has translated into online retail through technology in the form of online chats, retargeting, related items merchandising and IVR systems and other technology that makes communications simpler and more meaningful. Technologies like IoT, artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics have emerged to help retailers gather and distill massive amounts of customer data and use it to make more informed decisions about their customers’ unmet needs—why they buy what they buy.

Sound familiar? You may have seen similar activities from other companies you do business with; that inherent need to “know the customer” has now spilled over from the retail world into just about every consumer-facing industry you can imagine: airlines, hotels, utilities, even online experiences like Kickstarter, and so on. There is a feeding frenzy among companies who are trying to develop direct relationships with their customers. And as a result, every consumer-facing company is now—or should be—looking at their customers through a retail-focused lens. In other words, “everyone’s a retailer”.

What is a retailer?




A person or business that sells goods to the public in relatively small quantities for use or consumption rather than for resale.

The formal definition doesn’t necessarily seem to fit the types of companies mentioned above. Or does it? Maybe an alternate definition is in order:

A business that through its direct relationship with the customer uncovers their pain points and provides a solution in the form of a product or service.

Let’s take a deeper look at some industries, and using this new definition, see how they are acting like retailers:


A utility website used to be the place to go to pay your bill and see your electricity usage. It has since evolved to one that—through items it sells and recommendations it makes—can create a more efficient home, thus giving the utility a much more substantial relationship with its customers. By simply using the data they are already collecting about usage, utilities can make recommendations or direct sales on areas such as:

  • Service recommendations if heat or air conditioning stop working
  • Energy efficiency programs if electricity bills rise
  • Seasonal recommendations
  • LED bulb energy efficiency rebate programs and sales
  • IoT and Smart Home products and services

They’ve found their customers’ pain point—rising electricity costs—and are providing products and solutions. That makes them a retailer.


Airlines clearly already sell consumers a service: transportation from one city to another via an airplane. But whether you are on the airline’s website or speaking with a customer service agent, the same additional question is always asked: Can we help you with a hotel or car rental for your trip?

They just turned themselves into a retailer, albeit a crude one. They must have a certain level of success at retailing hotel and car rental services or they wouldn’t continue. However, many customers that travel likely have a favorite hotel brand or car rental company where they have more control in where they stay and what they drive. It is interesting to think about what insights airlines could cull from their customers about their pain points and needs.

If they were truly a retailer, they would leverage their website and app analytics, as there is a significant amount of data from consumers’ online behavior that could provide them with better, more personalized questions. By digging for the pain points that are more applicable to specific needs and not just the easy win, the airline could be building a stronger relationship with much deeper customer insights. For example, rather than passively asking if they need a rental car, could they actively push a list of restaurant recommendations and connect them with an online concierge to make those reservations?

Hotel chains

Hotels are becoming increasingly adept at the “know your customer and their pain points” game. Through their apps, customers can check in for keyless entry, click through for driving directions to the hotel, and in some cases even hail an Uber. When you layer these types of products and services onto your primary service, that’s acting like a retailer. And whereas the airline is hawking rental cars and hotel rooms, the hotel is solving a real pain point—easily hailing an Uber or cab and getting me directly to my room.

Can your company be a retailer? Should it? Some reasons you may want to consider it:

  • Provides tremendous insights about your customers
  • Materially improves your customer experience and loyalty
  • Mitigates risk
  • Improves customer engagement
  • Helps companies scale to completely new audiences

With the need for direct access to the consumer becoming increasingly prevalent, the one market that most exemplifies and enables face-to-face relationships is retail. Feeling and seeing the expression of the experience live is a critical component to pulling the right customer insights and turning those customer insights into money.