Through the retail lens: Finding opportunity

Futurist Crystal Washington on facilitating better online experiences and customer relationships


Crystal Washington headshot
Crystal Washington, technology strategist, futurist and author

Crystal Washington is a technology strategist and futurist who works with organizations that want to leverage technology to increase profits and productivity. She's also the author of the books “One Tech Action” and “The Social Media Why.” She previously owned a social media consulting firm and has worked in revenue management and corporate sales.

NRF spoke with Washington about technology shifts that are occurring because of the pandemic and where savvy retailers can find opportunities as a result.

What technology issues related to the pandemic are you currently watching, and what should smart retailers be paying attention to?

One of the things that I was paying attention to was the consumer consumption period. What did that look like in COVID-19? People were initially afraid that people would stop buying things. We had all these layoffs and a lot of uncertainty.

Compared with last year, U.S. general merchandise dollar sales increased 21 percent in the week ending June 20, according to the NPD Group Point-of-Sale Early Indicator Report. We aren’t actually seeing that it’s impacting retail in the way we thought. People also need to pay attention to their own sales figures compared with last year around the same time.

This is the time for everyone to invest in online portals. Buying experiences need to appeal to as many of the senses as possible.

What is it that retailers need to do differently? This is the time for everyone to invest in online portals. People need more experiences, and buying experiences need to appeal to as many of the senses as possible.

The way we’ve been doing listings in the past isn’t going to work in the future. Aftermarket sites are seeing huge influx in purchases, so the shoes you buy from $200 from Nike, people buy them extremely fast and resell them for $500-$700. That’s an area that is increasing and retailers should keep an eye on that.

How have the pandemic and related fallout changed how retailers can or should combine online and offline customer interactions to build relationships?

It’s certainly making online interactions much more important. What’s happening in a lot of areas is we’re having closures and sometime repeat closures — you don’t really know what’s next. Depending on people to come into bricks-and-mortar stores right now is not the smart way to go. It may not be smart to continue on with all these leases.

Right now, online ads are becoming more and more important. You’re getting less expensive advertising on Facebook now and it’s time to perhaps look at Google and Instagram. TikTok has been experimenting with competitive pricing, especially as advertisers are boycotting Facebook for a month or so, behind the human rights campaign we’re having in 2020.

Smart retailers need to look at ways to use target marketing and retargeting. It might include physical things coming in the mail because people are home more. We can’t depend on face-to-face as much now.

In what ways has the pandemic changed our futures, and how can savvy retailers capitalize on those coming changes?

Even as COVID-19 has created somewhat of an uncertain future, no matter what, we’ll see more online buying. We have people who are immunocompromised who will need to be careful for a much longer time. We also will have people who are spooked. There will be people not going to events or coming to stores for quite a while.

We have to make sure people shopping from home are included. It may mean taking on the expense of having your own delivery channel so you’re not as dependent on others. The world has changed.

But you also need to offer something exciting. People are tired of looking at their screens. Gamification is exciting — it can’t be cheesy.

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