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GUEST COMMENT Rediscovering retail

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It’s time for retailers to face facts: the anonymous shopping experience has had its day. Given the success of digital personalisation, retailers are now starting to turn their attention to the in-store experience, acknowledging both the rise in customer expectation and the differentiation a personal service can offer. But what does that experience look like in 2016? From intuitive, customer inspired fashion recommendations to individually created recipe ideas and ingredients lists in supermarkets, retailers now have the opportunity to transform the in-store engagement.

Moving away from the anonymous shopping experience

Despite what people might say, personal shopping is nothing new – it was the way in which everybody shopped fifty years ago. Indeed, customers’ response to an increasingly personal online experience clearly demonstrates a strong demand to move away from the anonymous shopping experience that has dominated for the past few decades. And this doesn’t just apply to luxury brands – a personal experience can even be given in the most impersonal of retail environments, the supermarket.

It’s becoming increasingly pressing to refocus on the in-store experience. Customers’ expectations of each brand have been transformed by the highly personalised online experience that bears no resemblance to the anonymous in-store experience. Retailers are also driving customers back in-store, building on multi-channel strategies to offer click & collect and reserve & collect services both in response to customer demand but also in recognition of the powerful opportunity to up- and cross-sell in-store. Ensuring every part of the in-store experience is a positive one – be it collecting or returning a product bought online, arranging shipment of a product from another store because the store the customer is in has just sold out, or being able to settle a payment and a return transaction with a single swipe of the credit card ­– is an essential component of success and achieving return on investment on these new multichannel strategies.

Creating a quality experience

Unfortunately for retailers, there is no one size fits all approach to creating a personal in-store experience. What may work for a luxury goods provider with big margins and a small, select customer base is clearly never going to work in a busy supermarket. Additionally, key to achieving the right model is the recognition of just what the customer wants and, perhaps, awareness of how bad in-store experiences to date have affected customer attitudes.

In reality, even those customers not looking for a personal service should be enjoying a better overall experience. From creating seamless, single transaction processes for payments, exchanges, returns and the use of gift vouchers, to replacing queues by using shop floor tablet based payment methods , the traditional frictions that occur within the store can and should be removed.

Building on this improved retail environment by empowering sales assistants to interact with customers in a completely different way is a significant step forward for retailers in every sector. A fashion retailer’s sales assistant, for example, can use information about a customer’s online shopping habits – including products browsed but not bought – as well as a single view of available stock across the business, to deliver a far more personal shopping experience in-store that can truly engage the consumer.

Understanding customers

The contrast is stark: today, most customers rush in the opposite direction at the sight of an approaching sales assistant when track record would suggest any interaction will be painful and unhelpful. Yet there is clear demand for a personal, better experience. If retailers are to turn this model around, it is essential to understand what customers want from that in-store experience – or rather what each individual customer wants at that specific visit.

Clearly, this is the challenge. While organisations capture and track every single interaction online and can use that information to personalise every experience, the same does not apply in-store. Some customers will not want a personal shopping experience; others will want one occasionally; some all the time. The model, therefore, has to be customer led. Retailers cannot encourage sales assistants to pounce on every customer entering the store, however personal the experience may be, but instead must make it attractive for customers to identify themselves to sales assistants.

Back to the future

Personal shopping is back. It is time for retailers to redefine the role of stores, embrace technological innovation that drives both service enhancements and operating margins, and engineer a cultural shift that will enable staff to reinforce brand value and deliver that personalised service experience across every channel.

Customer expectations have changed radically over the past decade – even the essentially isolated, impersonal online experience has become a powerful, engaging and increasingly personal event. That relevant, personalised and timely experience should now be delivered in-store. The anonymous in-store shopping experience may have been the norm for the past five decades, but the tide is turning and retailers need urgently to reconsider the quality, relevance and personalisation of that in-store experience.

Craig Sears-Black is managing director of Manhattan Associates

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