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GUEST COMMENT Retailers need to focus on retail technology to drive footfall

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“The high street is dead”, the critics proclaim. Mary Portas walks down the empty street like Will Smith in I am legend; a post-apocalyptic nightmare with boarded up shops and tumbleweed drifting slowly along in the wind. There’s no one about.

Depicting the current high street as some sort of ghost town is perhaps slightly disingenuous. If you consider that 94% of global retail is conducted offline (in the real-world of high streets and shopping centres), it puts into perspective the fact that bricks-and-mortar retail is still alive and kicking strongly.

But there is a problem. Retailers are fighting to unify the shopping experience for consumers moving between these worlds. While 76% of purchasing decisions are made in store, 66% of shoppers have said that in-store delivered messages influence their purchasing decision (Popai), and there-in lies the problem. Two-thirds of shoppers clearly see that there is high benefit in making informed purchasing decisions, but not enough is being done yet to provide them with useful and relevant information that will better equip them to purchase particular products in-store like they do online.

Retailers therefore are embarking on a journey of education when it comes to helping their customers with in-store technology that will appeal to and guide the ever-mobile contemporary shopper. The technology is now here but it’s clearly not yet being used to anything like the effect that most shoppers would actually recognise from their online experiences.

The now, age-old saying, ‘everyone is mobile’, is strikingly obvious but it has a powerful application when it comes to the offline retail world. Retailers know that millennial customers are increasingly turning to their mobiles, tablets and laptops when deciding on a purchase. Indeed, they’re not just using their devices to purchase; they’re using them to research and compare products before purchasing.

A lot of customers will research online the product they’re looking to buy and then travel to the shop of choice to complete their purchase. Now, clearly retailers prefer customers to complete their purchase with them, not a third party, which means the retailers must secure sales with a smooth transition between online and in-store actions by the customer as they break up the traditional compare-decide-buy-acquire cycle The rapid rise in click-and-collect sales seems to prove this fragmentation of the cycle has already happened in the consumer’s mind.

If we look at the implication of this fracture of the buying cycle, in-store branding only goes so far, the opportunity is to persuade the customer to purchase their target products and also other highly related and relevant products. Retailers need to have accurate information about the market segments that customers’ purchasing habits define. After all, the consumer has all the information about the retailer, their products, their pricing, and how they compare to other retailers. Bricks-and-mortar retailers know they need to arm themselves with the technology to enable them to acquire useful and relevant information to better promote and position products to their customers.

When a consumer has their mobile phone on them while shopping, and today most will, retailers can use the latest locational technology to track and understand consumer behaviour on the move. Take a shopping mall, for instance. It can be difficult for retailers to know where their potential customers are heading, where they have been and what they are looking for.

Using very compact mobile network technology and working with the mobile service providers, retailers can now capture anonymous mobile user location and segment profile information. This comes from data generated by a combination of the mobile phones’ movement around the shopping areas and the customer profile data that mobile phone operators have built up. The focus is typically traffic flows, dwell times, repeat visits and path-of-travel by customer segment. These services are most definitely not about being intrusive; they are simply about allowing retailers to design their stores, promotion and marketing based on solid, valuable insight from the data. For anything other than anonymous use, and this means personalisation to the individual mobile phone owners, there is always an explicit ‘opt in’ or customer relationship scheme (like loyalty card or online account signup) to ensure people are fully in control of any personal data.

This same cellular technology can also be placed in specific promotional areas to monitor, for example, how many people view advertisement/promotion and for how long. In the context of a shopping mall, where there is a lot of promotional content (in the form of digital advertising boards, for instance), the application of this cellular technology has particular significance because it allows the optimisation of promotional spend against the measured effectiveness.

Ominpresence, or ominchannel, is becoming the Holy Grail for retailers in an era when consumers have more choice about how they shop than ever before. Consumers are very savvy, seemingly programmed to find the best deals and the best prices for items they’re buying, and this challenges the physical retail world to level up to the new skills consumers learned in the online world. In the not so distant past, consumers would collect (physical) tokens or coupons to capture the best offers from retailers. Now, with ecommerce firmly positioned as the frontrunner when it comes to the retail methodology, consumers are relying on online vouchers and coupons; finely balanced with price comparison sites to really harvest the best possible deal on a product. It’s a battle for the best information between both sides of the buy-sell relationship.

Retailers have to bring these methodologies to the in-store world. This doesn’t mean discarding the notion of retail technology and embarking on inaccurate marketing and branding campaigns that only target physical footfall, but instead the future lies in “precision”, understanding accurately who is your customer, where are they going, why and what do they want. In the end, all retailers simply want to serve their customer better, precisely.

Gavin Ray is SVP of marketing and products at ip.access

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