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GUEST COMMENT The new rules of retail engagement

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Throughout 2017, physical retail stores have continued to close at a record pace. In America, women’s apparel chain Bebe Stores Inc. announced the closing of its remaining 170 shops and plans to sell only online, while teen retailer Rue21 Inc. closed down nearly half of its 1,100 locations. Retailers in the UK certainly aren’t immune to this trend, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime in the near future. Stores today aren’t just competing with each other—they’re up against established tech giants like Amazon and Google , as well as nimble startups who aren’t held back by real estate and legacy systems.

Retail cloud communications

Meanwhile, a new model of retail shopping is emerging. What was once an in-person, sensory experience is now largely taking place online. Today’s shoppers want to interact with businesses and make purchases via the channels that fit how they live, work and communicate with each other—whether that means messaging, voice, or even video. On-demand services, as well as the rapid shipping of vendors like Amazon, coupled with mobile ubiquity, means it is now faster and more convenient to shop online than going to stores themselves. To keep up with this shifting marketplace, and to keep pace with both the competition and the demands of their own customers, more and more retailers are turning to cloud communications to create personalized interactions.

The on-demand economy has made customers accustomed to instant, around-the-clock, personalised services. Innovators like Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit have changed the way businesses engage with customers, using contextual data to communicate with greater ease and efficiency than ever before. As a result, consumer expectations have also shifted. Now, whether they’re buying movies, food, clothes, shoes, transport, or almost any other interaction a shopper has with a modern business, they are demanding personalised service.

The next shopping frontier

As the retail customer experience evolves, it’s becoming easier for shoppers to find custom deals on the devices and communication channels that are most convenient for them. Because of this shift, companies are beginning to, and must, look beyond traditional means of engaging customers through channels like email. For example, startup Shop or Not uses text, powered by Twilio SMS, to communicate curated artisan goods and daily deals. After entering in payment information on the website (powered by Stripe), users receive one text per week offering a different product. They can simply text back “yes” if they want to purchase. Or consider ReplyYes, a conversational commerce startup where registered users are sent offerings on products such as wine, vinyl records, or new technology and can purchase simply by replying “yes” to the message.

Even large established retailers are deploying new rules of engagement to enhance their customer experience. Macy’s leverages Twilio MMS and SMS for two-way conversations between sales representatives and customers for a personalized shopping experience. Nordstrom gives customers the ability to text back and forth with salespeople on items including pictures of apparel, sizing, and even the option to buy the product. Nordstrom is also using Twilio SMS to alert customers when something they’ve ordered online has arrived in store.

The heart of the customer experience

In an increasingly competitive retail space, companies who have embedded communications into the heart of their customer experience are proving to be more successful. For example, Dixons Carphone , with its innovative customer service button that triggers a call back from Dixon’s call centres, recorded record profits for 2016. As customer demand continues to evolve at an accelerated pace, companies looking to be successful must accept the importance of building innovative new solutions to the challenges they face in communicating with the customer.

Embedding communications directly into the shopping experience has the ability to bridge the offline/online gap in a way legacy technology simply can’t keep up with. The companies that find success in digital commerce are those who build technology from the ground up, iterate according to customer demand, and deliver a personalized, contextual experience to shoppers on their preferred channels. To achieve this, companies must empower their developers to easily build and iterate upon existing processes and applications within the business.

APIs make it possible

In the rising on-demand economy, customer preference is changing at an accelerated rate. Businesses who are successful in meeting this change aren’t only putting communications at the heart of their interactions with the customer, but understand the need to empower their developers to build and iterate these communications quickly and creatively. APIs like Twilio make it possible for developers to build communications that engage with customers on the right channel, at the right time.

Communication building blocks allow retailers to offer a more complete service, one that bridges the gap between online and offline shopping in a way not previously possible without major overhaul. With APIs, today’s businesses can quickly and easily develop applications that fit their global business needs, and deliver rich, contextual communication to take the traditional shopping experience to the next level. This is how both brick-and-mortar brands and fresh new commerce startups can innovate in the retail space, all while evolving with consumer communication trends and expectations.

Patrick Malatack is VP of product at Twilio

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