Q: How is retail evolving right now, and how can businesses keep up with these trends?

A: Retail is changing at a rapid pace, making some retailers, large and small, frantic to keep up. The necessity to understand consumer wants and needs is an important element that has not changed. Knowing your customer is critical to staying relevant and to the success of any business.

Needs and wants of consumers vary by age group, but one thing all age groups have in common is their desire to have their differing needs and wants met. No matter who your customer is (baby boomer, Gen Xer, millennial), you need to understand what they want, where they want it, how often and at what price. Once a retailer understands this, steps can be taken to meet them.

If a retailer cannot meet a certain need, find an alternative that adequately substitutes (excellent customer service, strong loyalty programs, discounts, supporting local, free delivery, etc.) or improves the experience. Steve Jobs said it best, "You've got to start with customer experience and work backwards." How can you improve your customers' retail experience? Start with happy, satisfied employees. Employees are the front line for your business interacting directly with your consumers. Informed, well-trained, empowered employees help make for satisfied customers.

Differentiate the retail experience in a way that sets you apart from the competition. What is it you can offer that your competition cannot? There are ample opportunities to improve technology that, in turn, improves the customer experience. Consumers today expect to be able to purchase in stores, online and/or on their mobile devices seamlessly. Retailers who are not offering multiple ways to purchase are facing an uphill battle. Retailers need to be nimble.

Offer a high degree of personalization (not simply a name in an e-mail blast). Personalize all communication with names, of course, but also content based on each consumer's purchase history. Purchasing via voice technology (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomePod) is growing quickly. Consumers are using voice technology to find retailers. Make sure search has been optimized so when a consumer is looking for a retail store using voice technology, they can find you.

Kim Sovell is on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.