With digital channels increasingly available in-store, how will staff and processes need to adapt to ensure a seamless cross-channel experience for shoppers? Penelope Ody reports
In a cross-channel world, the store is no longer an isolated entity. It has to be part of the digital continuum and that means more than simply equipping staff with an iPad or installing web kiosks.
It can mean a significant change in staff training and recruitment, dealing with a raft of security issues, implementing well-managed processes to ensure click-and-collect orders are efficiently stored and quickly located, or even re-evaluating the entire retail estate. Those re-evaluations are already underway: John Lewis has launched a ‘flexible format’ 70,000-square-feet department store with a limited on-site selection complemented by in-store terminals giving access to the website, while House of Fraser has experimented with small format stores devoted to click and collect.
In some cases, stores are becoming more fulfilment centre than prime selling outlet with a tendency to offer customers special orders for next-day delivery rather than maintaining adequate instore stock levels. “We’re certainly seeing more empty racks in store,” says Tony Bryant, head of business development at K3, “with the online model changing the structure of the business and store staff taking orders for home delivery.”
These staff members are also having to provide shoppers with rather more than simple cash and wrap. “We are starting to see convergence between the digital and the physical worlds,” says James Lovell, Smarter Commerce solutions consultant, Europe, with IBM .
“Obviously it is being driven by consumers. Shoppers want the same rich customer experience that they have online when they go to a store. Gone are the days when you simply put products on display, gave staff some basic training and left them to get on with it.”
That “rich customer experience” can include such things as personalised offers, video presentations, detailed product information, access to stock availability data, free wi-fi, or mobile apps – as well as staff with both product knowledge and digital skills.
LESSONS FROM THE TOP
Personalised offers are nothing new at the top end of the fashion market where for years ‘clienteling’ has been the name of the game: skilled sales staff equipped with a ‘little black book’ have monitored their individual clients’ likes, dislikes and personal characteristics, ready to telephone with special offers and greet their select customers with a smile and by name whenever they enter the store. “Clienteling was one area where we had very considerable interest at NRF in New York earlier this year,” adds Lovell. “It’s a technique which is now spreading beyond the top-end designer brands to become mass market.”
Many retailers are now experimenting with iPads for clienteling or assisted selling applications, which inevitably raises concerns about security. Some, such as Burberry, which has bought 3,000 of the tablets, are issuing them to all staff. Others are checking them out at the start of a shift to individual staff members. “That helps with security,” says Jason Shorrock, product director, BT Expedite and Fresca, “as the individuals then have responsibility for the device. Others are securing them with a retractable wire to the wall and a security tag – but then you lose the mobility.”
Like all consumer devices, iPads are not really designed for the rough and tumble of a store environment. “Retailers are tending to pilot with a consumer device and then look for something rather more rugged for roll out,” suggests Richard Goodall, group sales and marketing director at PCMS. “Apple has really had it to themselves for the past three years, but now we’re seeing ruggedised tablets from companies like Toshiba appearing and I expect we’ll see more of those in stores in future.”
Equipping staff with a tablet computer also requires some sort of carrying device: at Aurora, for example, they have little satchels for them. Others are looking at smaller options. “One of our customers is using iPod touch as their main objective is to collect customer information and it’s ideal for that” says Jason Shorrock. “I expect we’ll see greater use of the iPad-mini as well, as it is lighter and can fit in a pocket.”
Aside from the practicalities of carrying tablet computers around all day, retailers also need to consider how much training will be needed and just what staff may find to do with the devices. If the workforce is already digital-savvy then little training may be necessary but downloading additional and unauthorised apps can be tempting.
“In several of the stores which are experimenting with iPads, staff adoption hasn’t really been an issue,” says Shorrock. “We’ve worked with Aurora, Thomas Pink and Pets at Home introducing iPads and most staff were already familiar with the system. In several cases they also very quickly started to use them in additional ways – such as taking photos of customers who wanted to see what an outfit looked like from the back and then showing them the image on the iPad.”
Whilst such initiatives might enrich a customer experience they raise other issues: what happens to those photographs when the shopper leaves the store, for example? What would happen if the more unflattering images found their way onto YouTube or Facebook? The same arguments apply where staff may be allowed to use their own familiar smartphones for in-store management applications. Again, how can the retailer control where or with whom such apps are ultimately shared?
“Someone has to be responsible for managing the data on the tablets,” says Richard Goodall. “Customers expect to have all the attributes they find online – the stock information, personalised promotions, easy payment options, discount vouchers and so on – in the store. Many of these things were head office activities so bringing them to store level can be challenging.”
Cloud computing means that much of the data needed to enable these various functions does not actually need to reside on the tablets themselves but can be accessed via wi-fi as needed. Even so, some data files might be stored on their tablets by some staff – much as employees used to load unauthorised programs onto their workstations in the early days of PCs – so there needs to be some regular routine for checking and synchronising device content.
Assisted selling also requires rather different skills from sitting at a checkout using the till. Certainly staff in specialty shops and many department stores are already adept at customer engagement, but it may not come easily to everyone. With shoppers also checking competitor’s offers online while in the store, staff may also need to be empowered to negotiate on price in order to clinch a sale – all of which can be more time consuming than current sales techniques.
“We’re finding that retailers are looking to improve staff efficiency by making some operational jobs less painful,” says Shorrock, “with the aim of keeping staff on the shop floor for more of the time.”
FOCUS ON THE SHOP FLOOR
Streamlining such tasks as goods receiving, stock management and cash management, for example, helps, as can equipping staff with mobile devices so that they can access reports, stock records or work schedules on the shop floor rather than disappearing into a back office for long periods.
Tony Bryant points to a new generation of smart devices, little bigger than a credit card but complete with display screen that can easily hang from a lanyard. “These sorts of devices can be used to enable access to a great many retail routines and reports front of house – such as management dashboard, task management, workflow, markdown management and so on. Stores should really get away from having a back office; instead, information can be directed to the relevant device and the relevant person on the shop floor. There is a lot of sex and sizzle about assisted selling and clienteling but for me the benefits of using mobile devices in store for such practical applications will be far more significant.”
This need to have staff available to engage with customers at all times to maximise selling opportunities is also changing store routines. As Jason Shorrock also points out, retailers used to encourage staff to do their various admin tasks first thing in the morning when there were few shoppers in the store. Now they are spreading the tasks through the day, using mobiles where possible, so that the maximum number of staff are available in the store to drive sales to those few early morning browsers.
In-store tablets are also set to transform the traditional till point, allowing staff to finalise a transaction anywhere in the store. While cash will still need a till alternative, payment options familiar from the Internet, such as Paypal, are becoming more commonplace in stores. “At the Apple store in Covent Garden you can pay for any item under £200 using your mobile and an iTunes account and simply pick up the goods and walk out without even engaging with a sales assistant,” says James Lovell, “and if Apple is doing it then we can expect other retailers to follow.”
Digital activity in store is obviously not confined to tablets or smartphones.
Kiosks have been around for decades and finally seem to be coming into their own as a means of accessing the web in store, either as customer self-service units or in assisted selling. Some retailers are using locked-down tablets, others more traditional standalone varieties.
“I certainly expect to see more kiosks going into stores in the next two years than we have in the past four,” says Richard Goodall. “They can be especially useful where staff numbers are limited as customers can use them for self-service while waiting to speak to an assistant.”
Opinion is divided, however, on the future on in-store screens. Some retailers, such as the Co-op, are making extensive use of screens for both staff and customer information, with large screens displaying promotional material and smaller ones at the checkout highlighting such things as markdowns. Others argue that in-store screens will become largely redundant as the promotional messages they usually display can be beamed instead directly to shopper’s smartphones or tablets.
“Unless screens are actually driving traffic to the store there are probably better devices to use instead,” argues Richard Goodall. “It’s all about maximising the investment in the website and distributing that to the most relevant device for the customer or staff – and that may be a smartphone rather than a plasma screen.”
James Lovell agrees: “If you have a store app on your smartphone then the retailer can check you into the store for personalised offers and that can add value. The retailer can also use location information, to see what shoppers are looking at, monitor dwell time and so on.”
Tony Bryant is more cautious: “Using consumer devices depends on the opt in: if you have free wi-fi in-store and shoppers sign up to use it then of course you can send them messages or use NFC to target them as they are passing by outside, but it still depends on those shoppers opting into the system.”
As with assisted selling and tablets much will depend on the target customer demographic. While the ‘silver surfers’ have certainly taken to iPads with enthusiasm, they may not pop them into their shopping bags when they head for the high street and despite the media hype not all customers are constantly glued to their smartphones.
Speaking from Experience
POINT OF COMMERCE
“We’re already talking to retailers about a ‘point, of commerce’ rather than a till point with the ecommerce platform being pushed into the store via different devices and the shopper able to transact through various means including checking themselves out.”
James Lovell, Smarter Commerce solutions consultant, Europe, IBM
“We’re not really seeing a big push into digital signage in fashion. Screens are costly and the RoI is not obvious, but we are seeing more self-service kiosks which seem to work as customer ordering points or for assisted selling with staff accessing the website.”
Jason Shorrock, product director, BT Expedite and Fresca
EMPOWERING SALES STAFF
“The role of a sales associate is changing and in future the emphasis will have to be on the profitability of each customer. If retailers are to prevent showrooming they need to empower their sales staff through technology so that they are able to negotiate on price with access to real-time comparative price information and business rules that define the amount of discount that can be offered, based on the customer’s ‘value’ to the retailer.”
Lee Gill, VP retail strategy, EMEA, JDA Software
MORE TO OFFER FREE WI-FI
According to IT in Retail 2013 Report* some 23 per cent of retailers questioned already offer free wi-fi in store with a further 12 per cent planning to do so. The study covered 150 retail groups accounting for 71 per cent of UK retail spend and 63,000 stores. The report suggests that key reasons for some retailers not offering free wi-fi is that “they have very small stores and do not have the room for customers to lounge around accessing the web. For “big box and department store retailers” there are often physical and technical constraints which make store-wide wi-fi difficult to implement.
* Full details of the IT in Retail 2013 Report by Martec International and sponsored by JDA are available at www.martec-international.com. Extracts from the study cost from £200 with the full report at £6,500