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Build around the customer

Omnichannel has been the jargon of choice within retail in recent years. It might be better to think about creating retail experiences with the customer at their heart.

For digital designers working within retail, the last few years have seen huge changes. Where once they just designed websites, a tough enough job in itself, the job has grown exponentially as ecommerce has evolved into what’s been dubbed omnichannel retail. Along the way, it’s often been tempting to see this as a move towards an era of ever-greater technical challenges, to ask questions around how best to implement new technologies, and how better to use existing systems.

“Much like a general’s grand battle plan, projects rooted in brainstorming sessions rarely survive contact with actual customers”

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and yet it’s at least worth pausing to reflect on whether something has been lost along the way. Retail, after all, isn’t primarily about systems and software, it’s largely about offering customers a combination of competitive prices and great service so that they return to buy again.

“It is about making sure we have a consistent and relevant user experience regardless of how you engage with us, dear customer,” says Kees de Vos, chief customer officer with technology company Hybris , succinctly. It doesn’t matter, he adds, whether a customer is at the “enquiry phase” of the shopping process, if they’re buying an item, or if something’s gone wrong and the customer is making a complaint, that consistency is still crucial.

Once upon a time, back in a sepia-tinged past of cobbled streets and caps being doffed, it was your friendly neighbourhood shopkeeper who dealt with the customer at all of these different points. He or she had a personal interest in ensuring standards wouldn’t slip. However, things are rather more complex in a 21st century of time-poor shoppers and multiple touchpoints. How do you offer such customers personalised service?

Approaches to technology

The answer, of course, is by employing technology, which brings us to one reason as to why so many in retail have become fixated on systems, rather than the way these systems might help the consumer. Contrast this with coffee brand Nespresso, says de Vos: “They have all of these channels, marketing, commerce, service, tied together, and it doesn’t really matter how you engage with Nespresso, all the engagement systems are providing that consistent experience. Now more than ever, it’s no longer just about commerce, it’s about customer engagement as well as commerce.”

Widening this out, it’s instructive to see how brands have adjusted to the digital world when compared to retailers. To generalise madly, with brands the emphasis is more explicitly about what that brand means to the consumer. The brand is seen as intrinsically valuable in itself, something that needs protecting and, more than this, developing. Perhaps because of this, much strategic thinking goes into working out how that brand should be represented wherever consumers might interact with it. Think of Nike’s imaginative use of personalisation, or the way Apple stores have a similar ambience to the company’s digital presence.

Against this backdrop, it’s instructive to look at the transformation of John Lewis . Forget its huge investment in technology for a moment. One way to view what the company has done is that it’s built on its reputation as an ethical company (its partnership model) that offers superb customer service and made sure these values are reflected within its digital presence too.

Seen from this perspective, yes, it requires considerable technical nous to meet the challenge of becoming a great omnichannel retailer, but just as important is starting from what we might call a deeper aesthetic, an appreciation of what the retailer stands for, which in turn informs the design process and ensures consistency across channels.

This is why so many retail analysts have put Tesco’s woes down at least in part to the company being uncertain where it stood in the market just as both budget supermarkets and higher-end retailers challenged what was starting to look like a kind of retail hegemony.

The customer first

If this is all starting to seem rather esoteric, it’s worth emphasising that design has always been a practical discipline. Much like a general’s grand battle plan, projects rooted in brainstorming sessions rarely survive contact with actual customers. Besides, in whatever sectors individual retailers operate, certain approaches will be consistent.

If being sure about what the company name stands for is one key part of the equation here, another is to focus in on the customer. This, after all, is intrinsic to ideas around omnichannel, which is all about reducing the friction between channels so the customer has a better shopping experience.

But how best to go about this? A couple of years back, a commonplace answer was to talk about mobile as the glue that holds channels together, yet this is another idea that’s being challenged. Shift the focus slightly and we could just as easily view the store as a destination that binds other channels together, the place, for example, where many consumers choose to pick up orders made digitally. Seen through this prism, mobile is simply an enabling technology that helps the store run efficiently.

“[Mobile] is a relatively easy way to introduce digital into stores,” says Kees de Vos. “You know, as long as you have a digital connection through mobile devices, we can enable the store to play a more important role within that entire customer engagement.”

This needn’t just be a mobile device used by the customer. As costs come down and retail systems are updated, more and more retailers are choosing to equip sales associates with tablets – and not just high-end retailers where so-called clienteling has long been the norm. Rather than the customer calling the shots because he or she has more information than shop-floor staff, such devices can give access to information that enables the assistant to help a customer.

The holistic view

Or perhaps we should just think past the idea of any channel or device as being more important than another, ditch the hierachy. Kees de Vos isn’t trying to suggest retailers were somehow wrong to invest so much time and money in

mobile when companies should have been concentrating on stores. Rather, he’s suggesting retailers tackling design projects need to think about how different parts of the company fit together to serve the customer.

“We’re basically going back to what retail is all about, it’s about differentiation and optimisation”

This approach is also intrinsic to the work of consultancy BT Expedite . “What we’ve always done here is when our customers have bricks-and-mortar premises, we go into their stores at the very beginning of a project,” says BT Expedite’s head of creative, Dean Taylor. This is important, he adds, because it helps BT Expedite understand the shopping environment, how staff talk to customers and so on.

The company did this even when it was just creating desktop websites because the aim was to reflect the real-world experience online. “What we’re attempting to do at all points is have a holistic experience for the customer so it doesn’t feel at all jarring,” adds Taylor, “the transition from going to a store to using a responsive site on the phone, to using a website on the desktop computer, to using a site on the tablet while watching TV.”

But it’s important to realise that by reflecting the real-world experience, experts don’t mean simply copying it within another part of the business. Again, the point is that retailers need to work out how different devices, different channels and different environments work together across the business. Brand values come into this equation too.

Speaking from experience

An ecommerce platform that works for the retailer

“The most beneficial thing a retailer can do if they want to have a process which gives them continual increase both in quality of user experience and as a result of that their conversion and sales performance, is to be able to adapt to what they’re learning. That means on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, constantly exploring, reexamining, changing aspects of that experience so that the learning can turn into a concrete improvement most of the time. If whatever platform they’re using is a blocker to that process, that is a massively expensive hidden cost.”

Mo Syed, head of user experience, Amplience

More power to retailers

“[Retailers] have the tools really to drive user experience, to differentiate themselves again. We are coming out of an age, and arguably still are in an age, where the consumer is fully in control. Now, the next stage is to wrestle some of that control back and say now it’s time for us to devise and design user experiences across multiple cannels that are unique and differentiate [the retailer] and focus back on that.”

Kees de Vos, chief customer officer, Hybris

Make it personal

“Wouldn’t it be neat if [a] sales assistant actually got a briefing through the point-of-sale device that customer ‘a’ is just around the corner and may pop in to talk about one of the recently placed items in their basket. And having that personalised service, so the person walks into the store and gets greeted by the sales assistant, ‘Hello Mr Jones, we understand you have this particular item in the basket, let me show you the product and let me talk you through any questions you may have about it.’ That’s a lot more powerful experience than maybe to come in cold and have to understand from the customer what it is that they’re actually looking to buy.”

Asif Khetani, director of ecommerce, BT Expedite

Applied learning

“If you take a fashion [retailer], they will have lots of information around fit and they will help their customers and that’s what the experience is like in-store, and what their customers have grown to like, and one of the reasons they would go to that store. Whereas another retailer may have a very educated customer who actually prefers to be served only when they’ve collected the items they want to buy, and they actually find someone approaching them and trying to help a bit oppressive. [During design projects], we take all of that in the round and then present it online, so we may present all kinds of assistance for the particular brand that would do this in a physical store, and then lead much more with campaign imagery and a brand on the [company] that doesn’t require that so much.”

Dean Taylor, head of creative, BT Expedite

“A high-end retailer wouldn’t want to have an eBay store because it devalues their brand,” says BT Expedite’s director of ecommerce, Asif Khetani, “but for a low-end retailer that might be one of the strategies they do want to employ. Whereas five years it would have been just trying to shoehorn as much functionality as you can in order to get traction in the market, we’re now finding that we can be very explicit and very choosy if you like in terms of what is consistent with [a] brand before executing.”

Delivering on the promise

As to how to execute a retail design strategy that reflects both a retailer’s values and the way its customers want to shop, here we really are back to thinking about technology again. While a few may disagree [see the strategy feature on page 24], there’s an increasing consensus that ecommerce platforms will become commerce platforms that help to drive the whole business.

“It’s about increasing your margins, optimising your operations, we’re basically going back to what retail is all about,” says Kees de Vos. “It’s about differentiation and optimisation. That’s really the place where we are now and where platforms are going. It’s not just about focusing on digital, but going towards customer engagement and then

tying that into the core retail applications. Fulfilment, PoS systems, supply chain – everything is coming together.”

For designers, the biggest challenges ahead will lie in finessing this convergence so that it provides the service levels retailers aspire to provide and customers demand. At the same time, designers will need to be keeping a weather eye on what new technologies might be on the horizon.

Make no mistake, this will be challenging, especially as so many companies even now have underlying problems with legacy systems and silos. However, there are plenty of grounds for optimism here. According to Mo Syed, head of user experience with Amplience, there are two ways to look at designing for omnichannel.

“One perspective is that somehow you get a lowest common denominator design when designing for multiple channels. That perspective would say you get a better overall experience but not perfect on any channel,” he says. “Another perspective would say that designing for omnichannel is an opportunity to focus on your user’s priorities.”

With omnichannel design projects, he says, don’t worry too much about “bolting more and more channels on” or “thinking about things like wearables [items with a digital presence] and things where business cases aren’t so clear”. Instead, he advises, take a “less is more perspective that keeps costs under control and focuses specifically on what customers want”. In other words, to return to where we began, the focus should be firmly on the customer.

What’s changed

Over the past couple of years, both digital design professionals and retail strategists have been thinking a lot about service design. This has in turn taken them towards a new (re)emphasis on thinking about the customer rather than systems and infrastructure as companies try to figure out what omnichannel retail will look like. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis, but important.

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