In the old world, retailers had all the power: the customer had to visit the store, find the product and (within reason) pay the price. As mobile eCommerce became the standard for retailers everywhere, the balance of power has tipped towards the customer – instantly shopping around both on the sofa and in the aisles has driven prices down and increased choice as well as convenience. Omnichannel should take this one step further, but a consistent experience across all channels remains elusive; bringing all of the benefits of online shopping into the store, like stock checking, extra product content, online ordering, fulfilment from other stores, and faster payment options, has become the minimum customers expect rather than exciting innovations. Challenges remain, but finally breaking down those channel silos once and for all is the natural next stage in this process.

Experiences and expectations

With the price war already lost, and online fulfilment and returns getting faster and easier, offline retail needs to differentiate on more than just convenience. To provide a truly engaging experience that keeps customers coming back and encourages them to spread the word to their friends, investing in the ‘theatre’ of retail is a smart move. That means providing unique experiences which encourage customers to see stores as destinations in themselves rather than just places to pick up products. And it’s not just customer expectations that have changed: staff are consumers too, and expect the same digital innovation and ease-of-use in the tools they use at work that they get in their personal lives Now, more than ever, it’s time to take a fresh look at novel ways to apply technology - especially consumer technology - to change what the physical store means, and to equip staff to provide the level of customer service only the human touch can provide.

Bringing people, products and business processes together

Connected customer experience is key to retail success in a fast-moving, technology-powered world where consumer behaviours are rapidly evolving along with their expectations. That means mobile-first, context-appropriate, consistent experiences that work by connecting data and functionality from across your business, and making them useful and easy to access whenever and wherever customers choose to shop. Store associates have more information available to them than ever before but it can be overwhelming, and digital tools for associates have not kept up with developments in the consumer space. They need modern, easy-to-use, pragmatic tools to ensure they can make the difference for customers and to reduce training overheads and churn

Bringing together data from all business areas, from customer service through to stock management, into a single connected platform is the only way to gain that elusive single view of customer activity that drives efficiencies, delivers excellent customer experiences and increases your sales.

Most retailers know that staying relevant to today’s customers involves making a commitment to using technology to develop fully-connected, engaging experiences which are not only seamless across all channels but also make it worthwhile for people to visit physical stores instead of going for the simpler option of buying online.

However, knowing what you need to do and actually doing it are two very different things. Customer experiences across all sectors vary widely, from fully-realised retail theatre backed by totally connected cross-channel data through to experiences which lack any kind of in-store technology or online-to-offline connection. If we look at the retailers who are winning the relevancy war for clues on how they’ve done it, it’s clear that there are a number of key strategies for those who are lagging behind to follow:

1. Find out what the customer wants and make it easy for them to get it

If the problems you’re trying to solve don’t benefit the customer, shelve them for now. Find out their key pain points and do something about them – from providing online ordering in-store to simply making good, free WiFi available. Often, it’s a small, inexpensive thing which can give you a quick win and build the case for further connected retail initiatives.

2. Use what you already have

You already have a wealth of information about your customers lying dormant in systems all over your business. The easiest way to make a real difference to customer experience and provide them with a connected experience is to free up this data and put it to work. The first step towards this is a comprehensive audit of what systems you have, how you’re using them and what useful connections can be made.

3. Don’t be attracted by the latest gadget

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Installing the latest VR headset or providing a robot to take orders might attract a superficial level of interest from customers who enjoy the novelty, but unless it enhances the customer experience and makes it easier for them to get what they need, it will never be more than an expensive gimmick. You’ll get a far better (and longer term) return if you invest in mobile connectivity (link to Consumer apps datasheet) and using your data effectively.

4. Make sure your connected solutions are compliance ready

The issue of data ownership is not going to be fully resolved any time soon, but the framework for regulation is being formulated and any plans you make for connected retail will need to take into account initiatives such as GDPR and be up to the task of providing understandable data files on demand. A solid connected retail platform will enable you to retrieve data on demand with minimum disruption and without the need to rebuild your entire systems infrastructure.

5. Trust your sales colleagues with technology and decision-making – they’re customers too

We asked 1,000 sales colleagues across all types of retail outlet how they felt about technology. The results speak for themselves – 74% said their employers should do more to provide them with the digital tools they need to do their job properly, with the same percentage stating that it would have a positive effect on morale and productivity, while 63% said that tablets would help them increase sales by up to 30%. 41% said they use mobile devices and apps every day, and would be very comfortable doing so for work purposes. It makes business sense to capitalise on this enthusiasm to work with retail technology – it will increase profits as well as employee satisfaction.

6. Tell people what’s available – let customers know what they can do in-store

It’s so obvious that it’s often overlooked – cross-channel promotion of the services available online and in-store enables you to make the most of any initiatives you’ve already invested in. Developing a terrific app which delivers personalised offers in-store has no value to the customer if they don’t know about it, and while some retailers refuse to break out of siloed sales attribution, clear messages both online and in-store about how to access a seamless customer experience benefit business, colleagues and customers.

7. Don’t get stuck on budget and timing (try before you trust)

Many retailers still believe that innovation is expensive and time-consuming or disruptive to business as usual. The truth is that, with the ability to carry out low-cost, high-speed development over costly large-scale rollouts, it’s now possible to put together a streamlined version of a product or process innovation in a matter of weeks, where more traditional methods might take months. You can build, measure and learn what works through a short-term, small-scale pilot, then adjust any features which don’t contribute to either customer experience or business results. You can use the output to build a business case for further rollout and innovation projects.

8. Don’t let fear of making the wrong decision prevent you from making any decision at all

The importance of offering a seamless customer experience is so clear that it is surprising that more retailers haven’t committed to it, yet a significant number do not have a strategy in place. One of the key reasons is that those responsible for making sure their business remains profitable are faced with so many decisions over where to invest that they stall because they don’t want to make the wrong choice. However, making no choice is arguably more damaging than making the wrong one – trying out new technology in a controlled pilot enables you to test, learn and, if necessary, move on without risk to budgets or business.

9. Make data an asset instead of a pain

It’s vital to recognise information as a strategic asset. Retailers need to move on from a product-centric, tactical approach to information, accept that data is central to success and embrace its strategic value. This means ‘looking under the bonnet’ to truly understand the data which drives the engine – and the growth of the business. It’s just not possible to offer customers relevant, consistent, up-to-date information which enhances their experience and makes their lives easier without the data behind every business activity, which is why information needs to be brought from its traditional back-office position to its rightful place at the very front of retail strategy.