This article first appeared in CIO magazine.
The consistent level of hype around new technologies and how each one represents the next significant wave of customer engagement usually has one of two effects. Either it promotes a kind of FOMO-inspired panic, resulting in the purchase of lots of shiny new devices with nothing to plug them in to from a data perspective, or it stimulates a resistance to making any kind of investment through fear of ‘backing the wrong horse’, resulting in a growing gap between customer expectations and customer experience.
It's an uncomfortable truth, backed by Forrester research, that most retailers are only just starting down the road to digital transformation – as part of their Digital Store Playbook for 2018, they found that the majority of US retailers are still in the ‘building tech foundations’ or ‘creating operational efficiencies’ stages of the digital store maturity journey.
Spoiled for choice?
Part of the problem is the vast range of hardware and software solutions on offer, regularly touted as the panacea to cure all CIOs’ strategic ills. Too much choice can stall a strategy just as efficiently as having no choice at all – it’s not surprising that a lot of businesses have opted to maintain the status quo rather than spend precious IT budget on something that may be superseded in a few months’ time. But the fact remains that customers are digital consumers with a high level of expectation – according to Forrester, 40% check out what they’re going to buy online before deciding if it’s worth going to the store, and 55% use their smartphones in-store to look up products and services before making a final decision about buying. While this isn’t news to most CIOs, digital expectations can no longer be ignored if retailers want to remain relevant, and they’re not going to get any less demanding as time passes.
Brick by brick
If the issue is complexity and choice, the solution has to be simplicity and sincerity. It all comes down to one question: ‘what can I do to make it easier for customers to get what they want?'. It’s the cornerstone for any market strategy – if your store’s too difficult for customers to navigate either online or on the high street, look for ways to make it simpler. If the IT department is finding it hard to free up data to make business analysis useful, commit to breaking down the barriers. And if shoppers are using their smartphones for ‘live’ in-store lookups or even ordering out-of-stock items, embrace the fact by giving sales associates at least the same kind of information and shopping power available to the people they’re trying to serve.
Because, while customers may be using increasingly sophisticated tech-enhanced methods to get there, their goal remains the same – an experience that feels good and just works, no unnecessary questions asked. Right here is where you should start building your digital foundations – with an honest look at what’s driving your customers to keep coming back, or what’s keeping them away.
In most cases it will come down to these four ‘walls’ that keep the roof up:
- Establish your digital bedrock – no amount of slick technology or cleverly-designed consumer apps will make a difference if you haven’t got a platform of useable data and good in-store WiFi to deliver it to customers and sales associates. It’s a fundamental place to start, yet a surprising number of businesses overlook the obvious in their rush to ‘keep up with the John Lewises’.
- Give your sales associates what they need – as hygiene aspects of customer service become increasingly automated, sales staff will have to step up and become trusted advisors to shoppers wanting more than just a transactional experience. They can’t possibly fill this more demanding role if they don’t have everything from customer profiles to inventory both online and in-store at their fingertips, coupled with the power to actually do something to meet real-time customer needs
- Maximise store space and inventory – space, warehousing and logistics are expensive, so it makes business sense to invest in technology to make it work harder. As Forrester says, ‘to optimize store space and merchandising, retailers must analyse myriad technologies’ - audit your requirements and assess whether advances in areas such as POS systems, RFID for inventory management and mobile self-checkout can deliver efficiencies
- Make better use of customer data so that it’s easy for them to browse, buy, order and return goods from wherever they choose – we’re at a post-channel stage where it’s entirely possible to harmonise and mobilise every detail from past purchases to payment methods - there’s no excuse for barriers in either the physical or digital realm.
If you build it, they will come
Forrester sums it up nicely: ‘today's customers look for and buy experiences, not simply products’. Building those experiences will inevitably involve tech elements that go beyond handing out tablets or offering the latest VR experience if they’re going to have a lasting impact, and this is where CIOs need to start – with a commitment to laying solid digital foundations.