The Future of Retail: Responsive Merchandising

The latest retail industry reports can confirm all of our confirmation biases. Depending on what source we’re reading, the state of retail can appear either on the verge of complete collapse (Toys“R”Us!?) or ready to embark on one of its most exciting chapters.

This isn’t a matter of fake news or bad sources. The state of retail contains multitudes, and the retail companies that thrive will be those that can simultaneously hold seemingly disparate stories and data sets.

Note: I recommend reading What is Responsive Merchandising? before continuing.

But holding such stories and data sets can be a challenge, especially because many of today’s responsive merchandisers are accustomed to receiving bits of retail news and information that are segmented like this:

Responsive Merchandisers

On the economic front, for example, consider this continuously-updated interactive graph based on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s most recent retail data:

Despite a few steep dips along the way, the data is overwhelmingly positive. And this is even when factoring in the 2008 financial crisis, which many economists still believe was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

And at the time of writing, retail headlines are bursting with positivity, including this piece by Sho Chandra at Bloomberg. The opening line:

“U.S. retail sales jumped last month by the most in more than two years…”

But it doesn’t take much digging to paint a different picture.

Moving to the human impact front, there are countless stories behind the Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows there are 31,000 fewer retails jobs now than this time last year.

Such stories typically range from the rather bleak, such as It’s hard being a retail worker in this economy by Marielle Segarra to the bleak but fascinating such as Meet the Camperforce Army, Amazon’s Nomadic Retiree Army by Jessica Bruder.

Then, of course, there’s the absolute buzz of excitement around technological progress in the retail space. Stories about the use of artificial intelligence for retailers aren’t only the features of publications like Internet Retailer and Retail Dive—they’re increasingly getting mainstream coverage in premier tech publications like Wired and Mashable.

However, staying informed in this manner is to see only the performance and not what’s happening backstage. Such a limited view can lead responsive merchandisers into the illusion that brick-and-mortar retail associates will soon be extinct and that the future of digital retail is the only future of retail.

Customers, regardless of whether they are walking or clicking through your aisles, likely aren’t doing so like this:


They’re trying to find what they want as quickly as possible, and they need your help to do it.

This is why the relationship between the physical and digital (the store and the site) is more important than ever, and why responsive merchandising—the real-time understanding and attentiveness to a potential customer’s wants and needs—is the future of retail.

Oh, and we’re not alone in our belief in the relationship. Even the BBC is showing it love:

Let’s broaden our perspective:

Responsive merchandising has always existed

Responsive merchandiser history

Take some time to explore this image. It relates to David Roth’s fantastic book titled History of Retail in 100 Objects (you’ll find a digital version at the end of this post):

Notice that at every single stage, from the ancient abacus to today’s use of big data, merchandisers are using the tools of their time to streamline retail processes and, in many ways, create better customer experiences than they could previously offer.

With this wider beyond-the-headlines perspective, it’s easy to see why responsive merchandising has long been at the core of commerce.

Sure, there have been and still are the aggressive salespeople that try to twist arms, but I’d argue that the most sustainable merchants over time have been those that:

  1. Found product/market fit;
  2. Were obsessed with customer responsivity; and,
  3. Continued to evolve their merchandising practice.


The rise of real-time digital merchandising

Digital merchandiser

Today, the evolution of responsive merchandising is about maintaining one foot in the person-to-person realm (where it has been and always will be) and successfully remaining at the forefront of digital merchandising. This means responding in lockstep to the pace of digital consumers.

Their scrolls, clicks, and purchases, and the emails you send when they’ve abandoned their carts—each of these micro-moments are the responsive merchandiser’s opportunity to improve the customer experience in real-time. It’s no longer enough to collect the data, assemble the pieces, and gain insights that may help in the future.

The power of AI-driven and retail-focused customer engagement platforms is that they can collect data, learn, and instantly respond. A customer’s experience should change as their preferences shift. It does when associates are helping them in a store, and it now can digitally thanks to such platforms.

But there’s still a challenge, even for those in responsive merchandising who have found product/market fit and are obsessed with responsivity and evolving their practice:

How to find the right technological solution?

Information couldn’t spread in the days of abacus as it does now, but discovering (let alone deploying) the products and services of today can still be difficult.

Consider the MarTech Technology Landscape of 2017:

MarTech responsive merchandising

Part of this challenge is understanding that there may be a big difference between what impresses you and what offers value to your customer.

So how should those in digital merchandising navigate such a landscape?

Keep this advice (paraphrased) from Vishal Khanna, 2015 Content Marketer of the Year, close:

“Demo products even when you aren’t sure of the solution you’re looking for.”

Khanna stays ahead of the game by carving out dedicated periods of time to explore what’s new and what might be valuable for him (either now or in the future). This allows him to understand what’s out there and, even if he doesn’t deploy one of those products, the demos can help spark ideas for new ways to tighten up or improve his existing digital marketing operations.

To get a sense of the tools available, one of these options will usually suffice:

  1. Sign up at Product Hunt to discover a wide array of recently launched tools
  2. Zoom in on the image above (and follow Scott Brinker’s work at
  3. Get customized (paid) help through Forrester


Toward an omnichannel, experiential future

Responsive merchandising fusion

Each year around this time, predictions are made about the following year’s retail trends.

Most of them have and will continue to sing technology’s praises. As we were founded by pioneers in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ll certainly nod our heads to those praises.

But we also believe responsive merchandisers will continue retail’s evolution by:

  1. Finding dynamic new ways to fuse the best of in-store and online;
  2. Learning to see customer interactions as customer experiences; and,
  3. Using AI to build bridges between site and store.

As Sophie Horrocks of Bain & Company said:

“Smart retailers are investing in omnichannel experiences that blend digital and in-store channels seamlessly.”

Additionally, the retail industry’s leaders in responsive merchandising will push this blending until it becomes so great an experiential value that customers will use it to differentiate between similar products and services in increasingly crowded markets.


Alas, here is David Roth’s book:

Cameron Conaway

Cameron is the Director of Content at Reflektion. His work as a journalist and content marketer has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among other outlets. Connect with him here on LinkedIn and on Twitter @CameronConaway.