Today’s newspapers are awash with daily stories of retailers having to transform their business models from yesteryear to stay afloat as our high streets evolve and customer habits and expectations change. Recent articles discussing the fate of Mothercare, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser are just a few. No longer is it enough to carry a range of products and expect customers to repeat purchase from a store and be brand loyal. Today’s customers are far more sophisticated and need their loyalty to be warranted and rewarded – but what can today’s retailers do to raise their profile against the competition and retain customer loyalty?
For many retailers the perfect answer is technology and they have acted accordingly. However, others are still on the fence, waiting to see how their competitors fare, but they do so at their peril. Retailers need to act now, but act purposefully to benefit from the advantages that technology can deliver in building brand loyalty.
One thing retailers need to drill down on quickly is what their brand stands for and create a sense of this in their retail environments. The role of the high street store has radically changed in recent years and whilst many retailers are cutting down their number of high street outlets, they are in the process of recreating the ones they maintain, to showcase their offering, with immersive customer experiences. The in-store experience provides retailers with the opportunity to underpin everything that their brand stands for and how they want their customers to feel about it. It provides a platform to engage with their customers and ‘surprise and delight’ them with their offering, leaving consumers with a positive experience of the retailers’ values and a desire to revisit and repurchase.
Customers are able to switch between brands online and will happily comparison shop, so maximising in-store experience is a great opportunity to deliver core messaging, when distractions are at their lowest. Because it is so immersive, the in-store experience has therefore become paramount to establishing and maintaining brand loyalty.
There is a danger in retailers acting before they have clearly defined what is the best way forward. Many make purchasing decisions in haste which in retrospect they regret – investing in technology options that won’t necessarily achieve their long or even short-term goals. Therefore, prior to investing in technology, retailers have to understand their problems. They need to fully understand where their customer experience is breaking down and ascertain what the right solution is to alleviate these friction points.
The keys to successful retail experiences are ‘ease and immediacy’. Retailers need to provide the best tools possible to ensure their customers have a great experience in-store and through all their retail channels. Obstacles like inconsistent sizing and stock levels, or paid-for and inconvenient returns policies, need to be eradicated before they result in consumers choosing an alternative, more convenient, supplier.
Nobody should know their customers’ expectations and likes better than the retailer themselves. Consequently, they are the only ones who will know what functions they need their technology to provide and it is imperative they work with companies that have the right expertise to supply technology solutions that can deliver them.
Many retailers are already working with technology partners to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) into their systems and are using them as effective customer engagement tools.
The insight AI extracts from data held by retailers helps them to deliver personalised, targeted messaging on an individual basis. Research shows that 80% of consumers are more likely to do business with a company if it offers a personalised experience. Consequently, consumer insight is vital and can be used as a powerful sales tool, ensuring all communications with a customer are relevant, add personal value and serve to build closer engagement with the brand – resulting in stronger loyalty going forward.
VR is already being used to great effect by many brands, not only to deliver enhanced experiences instore, but to extend the brand into the customer’s home. VR can be used in multiple ways to improve the customer journey from trying different clothing styles and make-up looks instore, to colour-swatching and mood-boarding rooms at home.
When choosing solutions, the most important thing to bear in mind is that not all technology will suit all retailers and purposeful implementations are what will drive customer engagement. Some retailers are already using robots to assist in sales outlets. Pepper the android, a Japanese robot, has been helping with various forms of sales from coffee machines to mobile phones, but that doesn’t mean this approach will suit every customer or sales environment.
Most retailers will benefit greatly from simply installing smart digital signage solutions. This technology can capture a customer’s data and be used to inform targeted message delivery throughout their instore journey and onto their online purchasing experience. This provides a holistic approach to consumer engagement through all channels.
Once retailers have taken the time to truly understand their customers’ needs, shopping habits, the friction points in their customer journey and considered how they can best resolve them with technology solutions, they need to take the plunge and actually start harnessing it.
The best advice would be to start with one form of technology, do it efficiently, measure its impact and, when confident with the results, roll it out on a broader scale and move on to the next element. When investing in technology though, retailers would be well advised to buy solutions which use standard language such as HTML and using common browsers like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. A solid CMS platform will drive content on all of the technology solutions at various levels of sophistication. These types of solutions will have greater longevity for the retailer, meaning they can more easily scale up their tech usage as theirs’ and their customers’ adoption grows.
Consolidation is happening amongst many technology providers, so using these standard formats will enable greater extensibility for retailers’ technology estates and easier integration with other services packages such as social media platforms.
A wise approach would be to invest in platforms that have greater functionality and features than retailers currently need, but that will suit their future requirements more readily. The smart retailer also needs to make sure that they invest in a sophisticated enough content management system that can push through content to all channels: instore, mobile and online. It should also have the capability to manage all the data collected on a customer to provide insight and assist with the all-important tailored message delivery to enhance customer communications.
Fundamentally, whichever technology retailers are considering, one message is clear – it is key during this period of retail transformation. And harnessing the power it holds to maintain and grow customer engagement and loyalty is vital. Retailers that sit and watch how their competitors are proceeding will quickly lose their customer share and with it their hard-earned brand loyalty.