Covid-19 has shaken up the retail industry, shifting the majority of shopping activity online and changing consumer preferences in the process. This looks set to be a lasting change: ForgeRock research showed that in the UK, the majority of people surveyed (63%) plan to shop only or primarily online post-pandemic.
As online becomes dominant as the preferred method of consumer engagement, it is also increasingly shaping consumer expectations of experiences across all channels - online and offline. Any disconnect or drop-off in customer experiences between online and offline will degrade consumers’ overall perception of a brand very quickly. This means that, for the in-store experience to not only survive, but thrive in the pandemic’s aftermath, it needs to be brought in line with online services, as one unified whole.
Ultimately this requires a seamless, joined up omnichannel solution with greater and more consistent personalisation and interactivity across both in-store and online. But what does this look like in practice? And how can retailers achieve it?
Seamless shopping experiences - a tour
Picture the scene. A customer walks into a store and logs into their online account on their phone using face recognition. As they walk round, they can press their phone against products and signage, displaying extra information on screen. Gone are the days where they have to chase down staff for more information - they see all the deals and details that are offered for each product on their phone.
Better still, as the shopper continues to look up different items, data is generated which allows the store to provide the customer with tailored product suggestions based on their live activity and their shopping history, both online and in-store. Once the customer is ready to make a purchase, they don’t need to rummage around in their wallet or purse for their loyalty card - it’s already integrated with their smartphone which they use to make a contactless payment, all without going near a till.
For the customer, this scenario would create a more personalised in-store experience; for the retailer, the benefit is better and more integrated data, providing insights into customer choices, including which products are and aren’t popular.
While this in-store customer journey remains largely hypothetical for now, the technology which could enable it is real and readily available for retailers today. Biometrics can enable companies to strike a balance between security and convenience in the onboarding and payment process - as has been recently demonstrated in trials where customers have been using their faces to authenticate payments. The Internet of Things (IoT), on the other hand, can create automated internet-connected checkout systems as described above, and even sensors for monitoring a customer’s movement around the shop floor and adapting the store environment, such as the colour of walls or signage, to their preferences - all while generating useful insights.
These solutions will not be fancy gadgets reserved for the likes of Amazon for long. When you consider that 82% of customers now consult their smartphone when making a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store, it’s clear that these new integrated services are key to keeping the in-store experience relevant. But while the potential is clearly there for retailers to deploy them, many are faced by a set of challenges which prevent them from doing so.
Fragmented identities: Omnichannel’s rotten core
Forget a joined up, streamlined in-store experience. Many retailers are still struggling to streamline their online experiences in the first place. But success here is essential for retailers hoping to harness the potential of omnichannel.
For many retailers, it’s likely that their loyalty card, mobile and online services currently work on separate systems. While creating separate repositories of data may have seemed like a good idea - or at least the easiest option - at the time, this kind of fragmentation is a real problem. As the patchwork of non-integrated services develops, retailers will begin to suffer from so-called identity silos. These separated, unconnected collections of customer data mean retailers often don’t have a clear understanding of what data they have on a customer and where it’s stored - let alone be able to act upon that data.
For shoppers, an identity silo will lead to a frustrating customer experience. For example, they may have to speak to multiple people before finding the correct product information, or they may even have different credentials for different services at the same company.
Not only does this degrade the customer experience, but it also creates a security and privacy risk. Fragmented services means any hope of a unified security protocol goes out of the window, and malicious actors will prey upon companies with vulnerabilities. Without a unified view of customer data, retailers will also not be able to comply with customers’ requests to opt-out of a service in a timely fashion, breaching privacy laws like GDPR and CCPA - how can you tell a customer you’ve removed all their records when no central function even knows where all their data is stored?
With the pressure on to digitise services, often with shortening deadlines and a changing technological landscape, it’s no wonder most businesses end up with multiple identity silos and sticking plaster solutions that quickly become outdated. But this puts them on the back foot, rendering them ill-equipped for anything forward-thinking like an omnichannel initiative.
A centralised solution that reaps the benefits
To get back on track, businesses need to take a step back and overhaul their identity systems to bring them all under one roof with a modern, adaptable and centralised solution.
The first step should be carrying out an audit. Most businesses are shocked by just how many different identity systems they already have, and retail, which generally involves highly complex organisational structures with multiple departments, is no exception. But once retailers have a clear view of where they are storing and processing their customer identity data, and how this impacts the customer journey through friction and disconnects, they can return to first principles and start connecting those elements together.
This might sound like a rip and replace job, but it doesn’t have to be. By taking an identity-centric approach - in other words, putting the customer identity at the heart of your system - you’ll be able to nearly order your existing integrations around, making it easier to modernise from the centre outwards. The result will be ending up with all the data you have on your customers in a single, streamlined unit, without any duplicates or fragmented sub-sections.
A modern identity management platform can help you with this, bringing all of your systems together with a centralised solution. Modern platforms should seamlessly integrate with existing identity systems, existing applications and any new solutions the IT department wishes to deploy. An AI-driven identity analytics solution can also help you at the audit stage.
By taking this approach, not only can retailers offer greater personalisation to customers, but they can also improve the security of that data. Only once you have a comprehensive view of your data can you be sure that you are adequately complying with privacy and security laws.
By providing a centralised solution in this way, retailers can enjoy better security while improving the customer experience tenfold. Once you have consolidated your identity and access management solution, you will then be able streamline and integrate your online and offline services to deliver a truly omnichannel experience for your customers.
Shopper experience is key. Consumers are loyal to brands that anticipate needs and make relevant and timely recommendations irrespective of the channel they happen to use. Making use of the latest technologies in biometrics and IoT will allow retailers to keep up with the game while matching the growing expectations of their customers. But these services must be streamlined, otherwise retail brands risk degrading their customer experience and damaging their perception. To help deliver a Covid-safe in-store experience in the short term, while also building back better in years to come, retail brands need to focus on creating joined up, omnichannel offerings with integrated experiences across both online and in store.
Gerhard Zehethofer, VP for IoT at digital identity specialist ForgeRock