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Digital campfires: how retail can provide the spark

Young people want to communicate – even with retailers? We talk to university professor Gerald Lembke from Weinheim who explains some effective strategies and tools retailers can use to reach digital-native Generation Z and engage them in authentic dialogue. Lembke’s research and practice focuses on trends and future visions in digital media and artificial intelligence. He explains: “There’s only one potential pitfall for retailers with digital communications – doing nothing.” But how can bricks-and-mortar retailers gather round the digital campfire? Which AI tools are really worth it? And what has smiling got to do with succeeding in this competitive environment? These are just a few of the questions our expert addresses.  

Persons with mobile phones

Members of Generation Z (15 to 25 year olds) are forecast to have significant purchasing power. What does their consumer and media behaviour mean for bricks-and-mortar retail?
“Gen Z are highly skilled in all things digital, their consumer behaviour is driven by digital media. This age group uses the internet to compare very different offerings. They’re really focused on reviews, so online reviews are key. That means retailers need to be open to transformation. They need to approach this generation and show an interest, perhaps by engaging on one or more social networks. You might tell them on TikTok about your shop’s best-selling lines. Your aim should be to enthuse young people about your shop, products and services.”

Have print media lost their appeal for young people?
“Generation Z doesn’t read text. Visual stimuli are important, they would rather see photos and videos. So it’s best to use moving images – these transmit a message or create a mood in the shortest possible time.”

Hand

How do you suggest that retailers who currently don’t have much of an online presence approach young people?
“Excuses such as ‘I don’t have the time’, ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘It’s all rubbish’ are completely the wrong reasons not to be active on social media. If you’re running a business, you need to be business-like. And that means you don’t shy away from the digital world, whatever your personal opinion. In fact, bricks-and-mortar retail has no choice if it wants to keep pace and develop further. It’s a waste of time to complain that too few customers visit your shop: it’s time to get active. If you’re not familiar, or not familiar enough with what’s on offer online, help is available. Free AI tools exist, and they’re easy to use.”

“The only future is one using AI tools.”

Prof. Dr. Gerald Lembke

Which tools to use, and why do they help?
“First and foremost, the only future is one using AI tools. They’re increasingly dominating customer acquisition and sales. Artificial intelligence can help you with automated steps towards formulating marketing texts, focused tightly on younger target groups. This can also help with creating flyers. 100 W is one such tool. AI tools for creating professional texts are booming at the moment. You can also gather information about new target groups’ profiles and consumer behaviour with tools like Kameleoon. Other tools provide easy ways to use photos and films on social networks or edit your own movies. A very wide range of AI tools is available now.”

Where can I get an initial overview of AI tools that are useful to retailers?
“There’s a website called KI-TOOLPARTY.de – it’s a portal I helped develop. You can search a database specifically for handy AI tools to boost your marketing. It contains information on over 200 tried-and-tested tools. You can find out how to optimise your digital communications, address new customers, or take product photos without a whole photography studio. Many of the AI tools are free to use, while others have a 30-day free trial before you buy.”

KI-TOOLPARTY.de
KI-TOOLPARTY.de

How can retail best react to young people’s digital consumer behaviour?
“One thing that won’t work is filming hours of footage in the shop in real time then uploading it onto YouTube without editing it down. Nobody will want to watch that. What you need are short clips, no longer than 60 seconds – or for Instagram 90 seconds max. With the right AI tool, you can splice these very short clips together to make a video. It can either do that automatically or just make recommendations – and will add a soundtrack of royalty-free music. You might film three or four clips in your shop showing your bestsellers, new lines, employees – or for a bookshop show perhaps the children’s section. Using the AI tool you can edit together a teaser for your shop in minutes, without any previous media experience. Very lively teasers with a specific message are a hit, sometimes including on-screen text. Once it’s out there on the internet, young people will look at it.”

How often should I post online?
“It’s best to keep things in proportion. It depends on the particular channel. In the hospitality sector it probably makes sense to post comments weekly, for example on Google Market Place. The same applies to retailers: that’s a good frequency with which to mention new items or this week’s favourite gift.”

Girl with a mobile phone

Are there any pitfalls?
“Only one, doing nothing. Don’t think you have to produce slick content like a media production company that has a budget of millions. There are simpler and cheaper ways to do it. Retailers just getting started in digital communications, or wanting to up their game, shouldn’t just ‘go live’ straight away. It’s best to view the video on your own smartphone and ask a younger target group – perhaps among family or friends – for feedback first. One first step you could take before posting a video online is showing it at the checkout, which puts it partially in the public sphere. My 12-year-old daughter advises me on a lot of things these days. I use her viewing habits as an example of a generation nearly ready to begin their consumer journeys.” 

What if there’s a lot of flak online?
“It’s true that many people are afraid of getting flak when they communicate online. But basically, any publicity is good publicity. Things like that do happen – even among friends – the main thing is not to be frightened. If there’s flak online, it means something went wrong in terms of the communication and you need to look at what that was. How should you react? Communicate! It wouldn’t be a good idea to keep quiet, since it’s all about digital communication. If you refuse to engage with the medium, then that in itself sends a message. It’s always best to respond, and that includes when people praise you. Approach people positively online, even if – as often happens – they’re anonymous. You might ask what they feel was missing or what could be improved in your shop or with your service. Communicating is about reaching out to customers, and the younger they are the more important this is.”

You talk about the digital campfire as a place where young people want to be. What’s that all about?
“People are social beings. We think that we may well get lonelier with more digital in our lives. In many cases that’s true, especially if people think the digital realm can replace socialising. But it only happens sometimes. A digital campfire is about creating a sense of community in the digital sphere. As with a real campfire, it’s all about sharing stories and experiences, about a sense of community among like-minded people. If you want to reach young people where they are, you need to make a place for yourself at the digital campfire.”

Persons at a campfire

What strategies can retailers use to secure their place at the campfire?
“The first thing is to create a place, a campfire. It could be a Facebook group you invite your customers and prospects to join, where you are active regularly. For example, booksellers could hold a virtual book presentation once a month. They could talk about the latest bestsellers in a video or recommend some holiday reading and respond to customers’ questions. This is the way to create a conversation and make connections. Perhaps as retailers you’d prefer to communicate solely via audio – that’s the next big thing in the digital world. Exclusive customer events in your shop can create a great atmosphere, which you can share digitally as video or audio so everyone can experience them. Retailers need to show that they’re always interested in their customers, want to speak to them and treat them like a community.”

Professor Lembke, you’ve said that young people want to communicate. Even with retailers?
“Yes, of course they do. They’re primarily looking for information and actions that will foster trust. Young people want to be welcomed genuinely, with open arms. Just like everyone else, really. I’ve got a good example to illustrate this: Where I live, several ice cream parlours are located in the same small area, and their product is roughly the same quality. But where do you see queues of young people? At the ice cream shop where they’re welcomed with a real smile, a little bit of small talk and – after two or three visits – pretty much as regular customers with friendly familiarity. The ice cream sellers there really are interested in their customers and they’re passionate about their jobs. That’s the secret and customers can feel this, it makes them come back again and again even though there are competitors very close by. The bottom line is that good customer service is now extremely important because alternatives are ever-present and accessible. Bricks-and-mortar retail needs to offer brilliant service and an authentic interpersonal experience. Digital communications are a key part of this.” 

Prof. Dr. Gerald Lembke
Prof. Dr. Gerald Lembke

Professor Gerald Lembke

Gerald Lembke is Professor and Head of Media Studies and Management at Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University. He works with young people to guide them towards a shared digital future. He is also a top keynote speaker on the topic throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and works as a team and project coach. Professor Lembke has written several books (the latest is about smart marketing with artificial intelligence) and regularly publishes podcasts and videos.