Falling Christmas sales, Brexit woes and massive, potentially business-damaging high street discounts: fear, uncertainty and doubt is currently spreading through the UK retail sector. The country’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) will have far-reaching impacts for the retail industry. However, technology could be the key to creating an experience beyond shopping, to keep customers coming through the doors.
Tech investment needs to centre on two key areas – the enhancement of Customer Experience (CX) and the provision of an omnichannel offer. IT cost agility is an important supporting factor for these areas of focus and will help challenged retailers succeed in today’s volatile market.
The capabilities and possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are limitless, as are the business benefits for the retailers deploying them. AI is helping brands rethink, reimagine and reinvent the retail store, to continually surprise and delight tech-savvy shoppers. With consumers changing how they purchase and engage with retailers, now is the time to re-engineer purchasing spaces and experiences.
This includes enabling customer service-facilitating technologies, which will help serve buyers whilst humans are freed up to conduct higher-value tasks. Within a few years, we could be seeing an era of stores having an AI chatbot at their store entrance, informing shoppers about the location of products, what tills are open and if human support needs to be given.
Taking customer service to a whole new level has been in discussion for years, but now the time has come for action. Tech can support tangible benefits that not only support shoppers, but staff too. Hease Robotics has rolled out mobile digital kiosks in retail locations throughout Europe, enabling 20 times more interactions than stationary kiosks. With these kiosks, ‘Heasy the robot’ can scan a customer’s loyalty card and show deals relevant to a shopper, as well as point customers in the right direction. The robot provides business benefits too, collecting data that can identify shopper pain-points and ultimately help businesses increase revenue.
The further development of self-service is also inevitable, and essential, as the checkout and paying process remains the most time-consuming aspect of shopping in the physical world. The future is in automation, and it is inevitable that the checkout process will become nearly entirely robotic. Eliminating shopping and queue times may seem like small initiatives, but given that the average person will spend nearly two-thirds of a year (235 days) waiting in queues over the course of a lifetime, these small knock-on time savings add up to big differences.
AI technologies don’t just bring benefits to customer service; they can also help improve profitability in other ways. One is helping retailers set better, more competitive prices. There are many factors to take into consideration with product pricing. Machine learning, the core element of artificial intelligence, can analyse massive amounts of data quickly and correctly. Foxtrot, an omnichannel consumer electronics retailer, used AI-driven price optimisation software to do just this. As a result, the firm’s revenue, and volume of transactions, increased by 16% and 13.6% respectively.
While bricks-and-mortar stores and online operations bring their own benefits and pain points, an omnichannel strategy can help retailers boost their business. It ensures that companies align their channels, and recognise that customers shop in a range of different ways.
Having a multi-channel presence and joining them up means better opportunities to cross-promote. For example, online can showcase offline with virtual tours and images, whilst also providing helpful information like opening hours, events, etc. Offline can utilise online for in-store ordering and facilitate functional benefits like click and collect.
Superdry is one example of a retailer extolling the benefits of a customer-facing multichannel strategy, having made concerted efforts to join up various channels to better track products and orders. This has allowed customers to combine convenient online shopping purchases with visiting shops that provide inspiration and experience.
Superdry’s multi-channel strategy has been enabled by ‘invisible’, sophisticated technology. The company uses radio frequency identification tags to track stock and make sure that there are always plentiful supplies on the shelves. This helps ensure that enough products are available for shoppers. In addition, Chip and PIN iPads, available in all of their locations, eliminate queue times, as buyers can pay at any location in a store. They can also order anything out of stock for home delivery.
Retail has changed from being product-focussed to customer-focussed, and shoppers now want an experience that goes beyondshopping. Creative an immersive retail experience can be powered by augmented reality (AR), which enhances what a customer sees and experiences within a retail environment.
One example is Ikea Place, an app launched in 2017 that allows users to place virtual Ikea furniture into their own home to see how everything might look once assembled. The app is 98% accurate in scale, rendering 3D images to react to light and shade. This gives consumers a much more realistic portrayal when imagining new purchases in their home.
Beauty retailers are also recognising the importance that AR is going to play in shopping. Leading make-up firm Sephora launched Sephora Virtual Artist, an app developed in partnership with AR company ModiFace that scans your face, figures out where your lips and eyes are, and lets you try on different looks. Users can buy any ‘looks’ they like, and also benefit from virtual tutorials.
Augmented reality is still unique and surprising – but the brands that start to embrace its benefits will also be set to reap them. To create a sustainable strategy that will pay dividends, the technology should be implemented long-term – rather than just being used as a flash-in-the-pan marketing stunt.
Underpinning these technologies and tools will be a reliable, resilient network that facilitates and supports them. Retailers must have a robust IT infrastructure that supports their variable business demands – whilst keeping costs down, to avoid eradicating profitability. This can be achieved by selective outsourcing, which will enable brands to focus in-house resources on value-added activities and help drive a competitive advantage.
Data maintenance is also essential for businesses to consider. As businesses gather more and more customer information in today’s post-GDPR implementation landscape, they need to protect that data from network breaches. They must also maintain the intelligence to use certain information, like customer data, for certain things such as consented contact. Converged managed service providers can play a key role in the protection of this information, as well as ensuring that systems are operating at an optimum level.
Downtime will be crucial for retailers to minimise – and businesses must be mindful that this can strike in a number of ways. If a shopper can’t process an online order, they will likely turn to a competitor to purchase from instead, given the wealth of vendor choices on offer. Similarly, if buyers are faced with shopping inconveniences, they are unlikely to buy from that brand again. In essence, anything that results in poor customer service will alienate customers – possibly forever.
In order to survive in today’s challenging high street, be it physical or online, retailers must create an experience that goes beyond shopping. They must also place equal priority on the systems that underpin these initiatives – or risk business failure.