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IRX 2015 INTERVIEW Alison Lancaster of McArthurGlen Group on technology and the customer experience

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Ahead of this year’s Internet Retailing Expo (IRX 2015), we’re running a series of interviews with key speakers taking part in the event’s conferences. Today we hear from Alison Lancaster, interim head of marketing at McArthurGlen Group.

Internet Retailing: At IRX 2015, you’re speaking on bridging technology and customer experience. What’s the single top tip you’d give to retailers looking at bringing technology to bear in improving the customer experience?

Alison Lancaster, interim head of marketing at McArthurGlen Group: My top tip is to go back to basics, and focus first on the ‘Why?’

Today, customer experience must be at the very heart of every organisation. By starting every project with the ‘why’ (your core brand purpose), I believe you can then begin create a truly differentiated customer experience, enabled by great – but relevant and customer centric – technology solutions.

Every business should have a clear and compelling vision for their brand – the ‘why’, or key differentiator. So before deciding or pre-defining the ‘what’ or ‘how’ you are going to do for your next tech solution or innovation project, make sure it is true to your core values and purpose.

Make sure your ‘why’ is sufficiently differentiated, customer centric, engaging and adds real competitive advantage.

Combining a great ‘why’ with great tech, retailers can serve their customers better, faster and more efficiently than ever before, providing seamless, joined-up experiences across every touch point, device and channel to win the hearts, minds and loyalty of today’s ‘always on’ global shopper.

IR: How do you see the customer experience developing over the next few years? What do you think will be the big influences that bring about change in this area?

AL: Customers will always want, and expect, successful and enjoyable shopping experiences. However, it’s more likely to be on their terms, and they will continue to challenge and set the pace of retail change and innovation over the next few years. The good news is listening and learning about what customers think and feel is far more accessible, with 24/7 real-time reviews, ratings and social feedback.

Today, shopping competes for consumers’ leisure and entertainment time, and so anything we (and technology) can do that makes it quicker, easier, more engaging and entertaining to seamlessly shop across channels, devices and borders, adds value.

Tomorrow’s customers will demand even more value and convenience for their time, as well as money. Everything retailers can do to consistently deliver great experiences, and to continually surprise and delight customers – will set the winners apart from the ‘me too’.

In looking forward and considering future influences, I am always curious and reflect back to learn lessons from the past – the successes and the failures.

Retailers must become more responsive and be faster, more flexible and agile than ever before. Many traditional retailers in the past were too slow to react to the new technology and online opportunities. And we saw a whole new generation of pure play retail brands emerge.

They dared to dream how they could reinvent and change the customer experience and created exciting new ways to shop (their ‘why’). The likes of Amazon, ASOS, eBay, Net a Porter, Ocado – and more recently Alibaba, Zappos and Zalando have completely changed shopping habits built up over the previous 100+ years. And they successfully did it, on a global scale, in less than a decade!

Undoubtedly, technology has been one of the most disruptive forces in retail, and impossible to ignore in future. This, together with the exponential pace of technological change, margins under constant pressure and customers being even more demanding – retailers must innovate – or die.

Customers are constantly searching for new, inspirational and instant shopping gratification – at home and abroad.

They expect even more innovative customer service solutions if, and when, things go wrong, and demand total transparency from brands in order to win their trust and loyalty. The use of Google, social, mobile and other digital technology has fuelled this 24/7/365 service expectation, and the best global customer experiences constantly raise the bar.

As a result, over the next few years, I see greater retail collaborations being a major influence impacting customer experience. Retailers and brands will form imaginative and powerful new partnerships, with the best tech and logistics organisations. This will be in response to growing consumer demands, and enable retailers to drive faster innovation to deliver better customer experiences, more efficiently and cost effectively, “anytime, anyplace, anywhere, anyhow”.

IR: In your view, what’s the most important upcoming trend in multichannel/ ecommerce that is set to change the way we shop – and sell. Why do you think this is so important?

AL: The most important trend I see is digital transformation in retail.

The customer is no longer King. They are becoming the undisputed ‘Masters of the Digital Retail Universe’, empowered by new technology, social and mobile devices!

As a result, the relationship with the retailer has changed. The customer is in control, like never before!

In order to meet and serve customers better and faster in future, one of the most important challenges will be mastering and managing organisational change and evolving the people and culture impact on customer experience.

Everyone in the organisation will need to think ‘customer’ not ‘channel’ to ensure the basics are executed brilliantly. Organisations will need to remove any remaining channel ‘silos’, embed customer experience into their culture and empower their people to anticipate and respond to future customer needs.

This will require agile, flexible, faster, integrated and more joined up ways of working and processes. Some traditional retailers will need to re-structure and transform themselves, and pure plays will need to consider their physical presence and options.

Accessibility to a single view of the customer and cross-channel data and information will be key in tomorrow’s ‘always-on’ digitally enabled retail world: everybody, and everything, will need to be everywhere, ‘instantly’!

Internally, that also means a need for greater collaboration and cooperation across the organisation (IT, retail operations, B & M, marketing, distribution, logistics and finance), with everyone working across all channels to become truly customer centric. I believe there will be a need for a board-level ‘chief customer officer’ or ‘customer champion’ to help focus and drive this change agenda at pace.

In the not too distant future, I can see dropping the ‘e’ and/or ‘multi or omni-channel’ retail pre-fix, and we will be back to good old fashioned ‘retail’ or ‘commerce’, digitally enabled. After all, it’s still only shopping!

IR: What are you most looking forward to at IRX (beyond your own presentation)?

AL: All of it! Two days listening to some of the brightest and most exciting people in our industry, together with great networking opportunities and catching up with the latest innovations and thinking from leading suppliers and technology partners.

Alison Lancaster is speaking in the Omnichannel Store of the Future Conference, which takes place on March 26 in Theatre 1 at IRX 2015. Her presentation, Bridging technology and customer experience, is at 2.25pm.

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