Why be wary of online when you can create a differentiated experience in the store with a high focus on personalization through technology and human intervention? Creating a personalized customer experience is not a function of implementing a new retail concept, multi-segment marketing or technology or workforce improvement alone. It requires retailers to adopt a differentiated customer experience strategy especially in their stores. In many instances, retailers don’t have the luxury of time or resources to focus on upgrading the complete end-to-end customer experience and related workforce-led assistance in the stores for infusing personalization at a customer-level. This is when technology becomes even more powerful and meaningful in the retail industry. Several retailers who are willing to experiment and innovate are experiencing the power of artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and the Internet of Things (IoT) as these tools have emerged as a stepping stones for personalizing each step in the buying journey. Consequently, these technologies cannot operate in isolation. The role of workforce has become more important in making this journey successful.
‘The demise of the store obituary’ notwithstanding, forward looking retail stores are now moving to a highly progressive digital mode. The retail store itself is being re-imagined for today’s digital consumer. New store concepts must function as an immersive experiential center and will be a venue for collaboration and experiences that cannot be provided online. According to EKN’s research on The Changing Role of the Store – Is Your Workforce Ready, by 2020, traditional sales processes will reduce in importance in terms of what retailers expect from stores. At the top will be theme-based stores, fulfilment centers and pop-ups. With disruptive changes occurring in the retail industry, retailers and its workforce need to prepare for and embrace evolving retail formats and technologies to offer customers a unique and frictionless shopping experience.
Sensory technologies is one such technology area which is gradually being adopted and incorporated by retailers around the world and it benefits retailers, its workforce and customers. With the use of motion detectors, clothing brands such as Rebecca Minkoff and Topshop are using digital catalogs, magic mirrors and smart dressing rooms to provide shoppers with the tools and information to make their experience as convenient and personalized as possible. As much as the customer has to embrace this new normal, store workforce will be more efficient in fulfilling store tasks and be prepared to impart knowledge and expertise for customers to use these new tools seamlessly. A remarkable example in this case is Coop Italia’s ‘Supermarket of the Future’ in Milan. This highly connected supermarket uses interactive display tables with redesigned vertical shelving and real-time data visualization where a simple movement of the hand shows augmented information about the product on a monitor, including its origins, nutritional facts, and the presence of allergens, waste disposal instructions, correlated products and promotions. Besides creating an innovative and holistic experience for customers, it also reduces workload of store workforce and gathers data, thus being a win-win situation for the retailer, store workforce and consumer.
Another notable innovation in retail is the use of Augmented Reality, which became a household term ever since PokemonGo was launched in July 2016 and created a global craze. Augmented reality allows consumers to virtually experience products as they might use them in their own lives, and unlike Virtual Reality (VR), it does not obstruct the view of our own surroundings, but ‘augments’ the real world with images, text, video or graphics instead. This is what empowers AR with wide-scale applicability, especially in retail. Using AR, businesses can provide a level of interaction between their products and consumers by immersing them in a completely new environment. IKEA was one of the earliest retailers to incorporate AR and integrate it into its product catalogue. It used AR technology to bridge the gap between the customer’s perceptions and the reality of the products. When shopping at home for new furniture, customers can now visualize how a piece that catches their eye would look in their living space. In highly engaged sales environments such as do-it yourself, consumer electronics, home goods, among others, AR can help lessen both ‘time to engagement’ and ‘time to conversion’ for store associates.
Then there’s Robotics, which has been used on a large scale in the supply chain for decades, but has now made its way into aisles and checkout counters of brick-and-mortar stores. Home improvement chain Lowe’s has its own robot known as the Lowebot, which acts as in-store help for customers. Piloted in the San Francisco Bay Area, the LoweBot is an autonomous robot that greets and assists customers when they enter the store. Made by Fellow Robots, the robot uses a 3D scanner to identify people as they arrive. Customers can then ask it to search for products, either by speaking out loud or using the touchscreen input, and the LoweBot will guide them to where they are in the store with the help of smart laser sensors. The LoweBot can also show special offers to customers, and even scan the store shelves to gather inventory data to send to associates or workforce in the stores. The aim here is to free up the human store assistants to deal with the more challenging inquiries. It also saves customers time as they don’t need to wander the store aimlessly looking for the product they want, or an associate to direct them to it. Besides Lowe’s, a number of retailers have experimented with robotic devices in their stores, and it is certain that we will start seeing a lot more robots in store aisles in the next few years.
Avanade is the research partner in EKN’s 2017 Digital Workforce survey