Visualizing the Future


Harley-Davidson is using location-based visualization technology to educate its shoppers about the best places to ride.

Shoppers are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the in-store shopping experience, making it harder for retailers to stand out in a competitive landscape. The easiest way to recapture shoppers’ hearts—and loyalty—is to think the way customers do: visually.

By enabling shoppers to use location-based visualization tools via personal-communication devices during in-store visits, retailers have a stronger chance of re-attracting consumers.

This was the message delivered during the Webinar, “Driving Retail Profit With Visualization Technology,” hosted by Chain Store Age. The event, sponsored by Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, educated an audience of approximately 100 listeners about how location-based visualization technology can help retailers reconnect with shoppers and improve the multichannel shopping experience—an experience that clearly could stand some improvement.

The fourth quarter of 2007 marked the first time that consumers reported a higher satisfaction rating with online buying experiences compared to those in bricks-and-mortar stores, according to The American Consumer Satisfaction Index, February 2008.

There are a few factors contributing to this shift. It has become commonplace for multichannel operators to deliver three-dimensional views of products and features online. They also feature robust store locators that include location addresses and phone numbers, as well as maps and step-by-step driving directions.

Because they regularly use such online services, shoppers have become accustomed to seeing visually charged applications on their personal-communication devices. And now they are expecting these concepts to merge at store level.

“More shoppers rely on their cell phones to access the Web, and this increases their consumer power,” noted Paula Rosenblum, managing partner, Retail Systems Research (RSR), Miami, during the Webcast.

Currently, most retailers don’t have the infrastructure in place to support these services in-store, “but the good news is that retailers can transition this challenge into an opportunity,” she said. “By empowering shoppers with more self-service solutions, chains could bolster in-store shopping experiences.”

More retailers are recognizing the importance of offering these services at store level. According to “The Business Benefits of Location-based Visualization Technologies” study released by RSR in June, 88% of retail winners, or companies whose same-store sales outperform their peers on a yearly basis, said that self-service technologies do improve the in-store experience. This is a jump from 67% last year.

Self-service could soon peak, since chains continue to operate with “declining payroll-to-sales ratios,” Rosenblum said. This leads to having less-knowledgeable in-store personnel available.

Eager to improve customer service, savvy retailers are turning their attention to customer-facing solutions, especially those that shoppers are familiar with online. The top areas of interest are location-based visualization tools that give users access to interactive three-dimensional maps, directions and traffic in the palm of their hands.

While the concept is still in its infancy, some retailers are using it “to take customer intimacy by the horns,” Rosenblum said.

With the help of the Virtual Earth online visualization tool from Microsoft, FedEx Kinko’s allows shoppers to search for nearby locations or those that feature specific services. Once the locations are listed, shoppers can access an area map, complete with driving directions.

If shoppers are in a store that does not have the services they need, they can access the visualization tool via their handheld device.

Virtual Earth tool is also helping Harley-Davidson take its visualization efforts to the next level. “Oftentimes, shoppers purchase a Harley, then they want to learn where are the best places to ride,” noted Chris Pendleton, Virtual Earth technical evangelist, Microsoft.

Taking a lesson from social communities, Harley-Davidson created its Ride Planner service, “a community that gives riders many options,” Pendleton said.

The application enables users to view services, including lodging, gas stations and dealers, which appear along specific paths. Through partnerships with companies such as Best Western, riders can also get discounts, Pendleton said.

The “Great Roads and Submitted Rides” service enables riders to access paths based on Harley-Davidson’s robust database. They can also access trips suggested by other H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) enthusiasts.

Users can also save their favorite routes in a personal folder available on the Harley-Davidson site, or share the route with friends. “This already-strong brand has found a way to strengthen its community,” he said.

With the proper Flash application available on personal devices, shoppers can view this information in-store as well.

Next-generation visualization applications will only help in-store experiences. “By blending business intelligence into the mix, retailers will gain a strong forecast engine. Analytics can help chains visualize surrounding areas for new stores, as well as what the neighborhoods look like,” Rosenblum explained.

“The tool is powerful,” she said. “And as shoppers grow more comfortable with the Web, these applications will become necessities in the store.”

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