Originally featured on Business Insider.
Science and technology historian James Burke once said, "Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look."
Burke wasn't referring to how we shop, but the sentiment fits. To understand the future of retail, we have to look to the past, and it shows that the key to influencing a purchase lies squarely with the point of transaction.
Now more than ever, both retailers and brands must be able to interpret consumer behavior and read intent signals to reach consumers when it matters most.
The path to purchase
Before the internet, the consumer path to purchase ran straight through the physical world. Consumers were most likely to be influenced by recommendations from family and friends or by what they saw in ads. But with limited time to buy, it's likely their decisions would be powered by word of mouth.
Inevitably, these shoppers would arrive at a store ready to buy, but the chosen retailer had little control over how they got there — and even less knowledge about why they came. Meanwhile, competing retailers and brands that had equally attractive and relevant products were left out in the cold.
Fast forward, and this path has diverted toward the web. According to a recent UPS "Pulse of the Online Shopper" study, consumers now make 51% of their purchases online. They're using their smartphones in stores to look up product reviews, compare prices, and find coupons. Theirs is a cross-channel, multiplatform journey built around the retail, e-commerce, and mobile-commerce experience.
Retail's magic moment
This has opened a new window of opportunity for retailers to leverage data, anticipate consumers' needs, and deliver on those needs. Their strategy? Fight data with data.
Programmatic marketing allows retailers to reach audiences across channels with precision. Every piece of information related to a product sale is a piece of the digital-marketing puzzle that tells us where, how, and when to deliver the message that will turn consumers into customers.