The high street is still alive, despite what the papers say, but it’s struggling to maintain momentum.
Store closures are happening daily and many of us are losing loved brands as we increasingly move to online shopping for reduced costs, ease and a much wider variety of retail outlets and products to choose from. Although online sales are continuing to rise, this change in shopping habits is having a significant impact on in-store sales, as French Connection for instance recently revealed that it saw a 6.8% decrease in its like-for-like sales in 2018 compared to the previous year.
Retailers are now on the hunt for new ways to entice customers back into the physical store, transforming the high-street into a battleground with brands fighting to win their customers back with the latest technology. From augmented and virtual reality to artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition, new digital weapons are being revealed by competing brands on a regular basis. But although being able to virtually try on potential purchases is certainly an exciting concept, is it enough to reshape our shopping habits into ones that are more balanced between online and in-store?
Retailers need to go back to the basics of what makes a good customer experience to bring their clients back into the stores – the human touch.
Despite the digital revolution granting us the opportunity to shop online from our homes, many of us are in fact already used to the idea of browsing through products from the living room couch. Back in the day, when iPhones weren’t even an idea in Steve Jobs’ brain, the only alternative to shopping on the high street was sitting in your front room browsing a catalogue and making an order via the phone.
At that stage though, one or two catalogues were enough at any one time, meaning brand loyalty was at an all-time high. And retailers were able to build and maintain robust relationships with their returning customers from having regular phone conversations with them, providing personalised service with tailored advice to the specific person at the other end of the line.
In today’s digital world though, consumers are back shopping from the comfort of their own home, but the requirement to pick up the phone to a brand is reducing as customers have a much wider variety of communication channels to choose from. As a result, retailers are facing much greater complexity when it comes to offering the right customer experience.
Taking a trip to the high street is time-consuming and often tiring, meaning many of us tend to stick to the brands we know. But the online shopping experience has opened up a whole host of new online exclusives that consumers can choose from, whether that’s specific products or even entire brands.
With so much choice and the ability to compare prices quickly and easily, shoppers are able to devote more time to consider their purchases before committing to them. And as swapping and changing the retailer we buy from based on our needs is becoming ever easier, retailers are increasingly struggling to maintain brand loyalty. As such, finding new ways of appealing to their customer base to ensure they keep coming back has been put right at the top of the priorities list.
Despite this though, there is one avenue many retailers fail to exploit: data. Masses of data are created through the numerous interactions that customers have with the brands they browse and purchase from. If used in the right way, these could offer a real competitive advantage. As maintaining a human connection with customers continues to become a challenge with online shopping, having the ability to personalise any interaction, especially over the phone, through the analysis of the available data could be crucial.
Customers are now having to communicate with chatbots on a regular basis but paired with voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, artificial voices are something we are becoming increasingly used to. However, this technology, despite having made great leaps in recent years, has its limitations. These become obvious when customers pick up the phone to resolve an issue that can’t be done online, which usually means they need the human touch.
Retailers now argue that chatbots and automatised telephony platforms are making the customer journey more efficient and streamlined. But the reality is that it risks stripping customer communication of precious personalisation and human touch. This creates a barrier between brands and customers.
This same barrier is also stopping retailers from being able to access the wealth of data on their customers’ history with the brand that they could delve into for insight. If used wisely, this insight could be the key to creating a significantly more personalised and seamless customer experience.
As retailers begin to realise the potential of the data that they already have, they will also begin to understand the significant role that AI plays in capitalising on these interactions. There is now AI technology in development that will allow retailers and other organisations to analyse the phone calls they have with customers and immediately pick up any essential data from the discussions had with the contact centre staff.
For instance, when an existing customer calls, AI will be able to tell the retailer’s contact agent who the customer is, what they previously called about, what products they have purchased and so on by providing a 360-degree view of all the customer’s previous interactions on the phone with the brand in front of their eyes.
All industries worldwide have had their own ups and downs throughout history, but as technology will only continue to evolve and disrupt almost every aspect of our lives, this time, all industries are in it together.
Now more than ever, it is critical that retailers keep up with the pace of change and stay ahead of their competitors by providing the experience customers expect and feel they deserve. Customers are the foundation on which retail is built, and their loyalty is a retailer’s biggest asset. If retailers want to ensure that they maintain brand loyalty, it is up to them to find and adopt the solutions they need to ensure their customers keep coming back.