With more customer-specific information filtering into retail enterprises, brands are primed to deliver more personalized, seamless experiences. Such efforts not only drive repeat visits and purchases, but also “help retailers to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and get closer to the customer,” said Tom Moore, industry lead of retail and hospitality at Zebra Technologies.
Indeed, 38% of companies reported that personalization is a top digital customer experience priority, according to the “2017 Digital Commerce Benchmark Survey,” from Boston Retail Partners (BRP). For many retailers, this requires new solutions that will help them engage with customers throughout the shopping journey. With so many options available, retail leaders are opting for solutions “that can solve problems in new ways,” William Fong, co-founder and CTO of Boxed, an online retailer that sells everyday essentials in bulk, told Chain Store Age.
The technologies listed below are shaping the retail landscape and are among the most coveted solutions in retailers’ personalization toolboxes.
&bull Artificial intelligence. A computing component that uses data to make “machines” intelligent, AI is taking the customer experience to a new level. In addition to automatically tracking customers’s purchase and preferences, AI can streamline how brands upsell with more relevancy. It’s also a conduit to merging the physical and online touchpoints.
“AI can provide the foundational information needed to understand the shopper’s entire omnichannel journey and deliver a better in-store experience,” said Will Decker, VP of retail innovation at Plug and Play Tech Center. “AI supports a more interesting understanding of the community and how we can engage them at scale.”
Boxed is leveraging AI to support a new automated replenishment service based on machine learning — connecting with customers through AI data. Called Smart Stock Up, the program relies on machine learning to understand shoppers’ most used items, and when they will need more.
“It also pushes out an email that reveals a list of merchandise that we think they are running low on,” Wong explained. “If they agree, customers click on a link that directs them to our site. Here, they can add the merchandise to their cart, and either continue shopping or proceed directly to checkout.” The service launched in August.
&bull Augmented reality. A technology that overlays computer-generated imagery on pictures and videos of the real world — from showrooms or sales floors to rooms in a shopper’s home — AR enables brands to deliver a personalized retail experience. While the technology is still evolving, early adopters are thirsty for more: 80% of shoppers want to use AR to design a room or physical space, browse virtual or physical showrooms and view how furniture and décor looks in their personal space, according to a study from L.E.K. Consulting.
Saks Fifth Avenue is among the most recent retailers experimenting with AR technology. Putting a new twist on the salon experience, Saks is using AR to enable clients to virtually try on products available in the salon’s inventory and test lipsticks from a try-on bar cart. Following a consultation with their stylist, the hairdresser completes purchase transactions from an iPad.
&bull Virtual reality. A concept similar to AR, VR also uses 3-D images. Rather than interacting with images in the real world, VR immerses consumers in a totally digital environment where they can perform a task such as shopping or even receive job training. A good example of how brands are using VR to allow consumers to engage with brands on a personal level is the new VR shopping app launched by Swarovski for its line of crystal home accessories, Atelier Swarovski. The jewelry brand teamed up with MasterCard on an app that allows consumers to virtually browse and purchase items in the collection using Masterpass, Mastercard’s digital payment service, without ever leaving the VR experience.
Consumers place their smartphone into a VR headset to enter the experience, which lets them walk through a virtual home to browse designs. They can learn about the stories behind each piece, read descriptions and see the pricing. To make a purchase, they focus their gaze on the Masterpass button that appears at the bottom of the product description.
On the training side, Walmart is adding VR as a training tool at its 200 Walmart Academy training centers in the United States. Each location will have an Oculus Rift headset and gaming system that hosts a collection of VR training content.
“Five years ago, implementing this technology at this scale and context would have been significantly expensive and prohibitive,” said E. Blake Jackson, a Walmart spokesman. “With more developers and content producers entering the space, and the cost of hardware and software dropping, VR is more attainable at such a large scale.”
Regardless of the solution that retailers commit to, the goal is “to deliver a positive, personalized experience digitally as well as in-store,” said Doug Oathout, VP of strategic partnerships at Black Box. “These solutions are the key to gaining intelligence about customers and personalizing the experience.”
Making a case for unified commerce
Centralized operating platforms help retailers become digitally competitive, according to Jimmy Duvall, chief product officer of BigCommerce. Duvall told Chain Store Age that integrated platforms are key for brands that want to deliver exceptional, targeted customer experiences.
What trends are changing the game for omnichannel retailers — especially those that are not digitally native?
The last several years brought a shift in consumers’ shopping mentality and buying habits. Today’s online consumers are far more mobile, and they demand more streamlined site experiences and simplified payment options that make shopping on smart devices easier.
Meanwhile, the impact social media has on today’s digital shopper cannot be understated. A BigCommerce survey showed that 75% of SMBs found platforms like Facebook and Instagram have the highest potential for generating sales, making it clear that consumers are receptive to brand messaging within social networks if they are perceived as a value-add rather than a disruption.
What are the top capabilities that retailers need in order to be an omnichannel destination?
To stay competitive, retailers must adapt to the shopping preferences of their customers. Increasingly, customers want personalized shopping experiences across channels, which is only possible by understanding their buyer journey. To enable this, retailers need functionality that extends beyond single transactions so they can deliver targeted touches along the buyer journey.
On the back end, it’s crucial to have integrated systems for customer data, inventory levels/locations, and orders as the transaction could happen anywhere (marketplaces, online store, social channel, physical store).
On the front end, delivering branded experiences across these channels is key. Serving ads based on shopping history, targeted videos from product pages, abandoned-cart emails with discount codes, and even direct mail are all touchpoints along the shopper journey that embody and deliver a true omnichannel experience.
What are the biggest challenges facing retailers in their quest to be omnichannel and integrated?
Retailers need a broad presence in order to maximize brand visibility and sales potential, but getting started as an omnichannel retailer today remains too complex. Beyond set-up, there’s an increased level of planning that accompanies omnichannel selling in order to define the company’s approach on each channel.
The most successful brands define this early on to achieve differentiation through pricing, merchandising, expert curation, and more. This allows them more time to focus on overcoming the additional obstacles that selling on marketplaces can present, including limited control over the customer relationship, company branding and access to consumer data.
How can BigCommerce help in the retailer’s omnichannel journey?
Rather than avoid omnichannel altogether, retailers should look for an e-commerce platform that has native omnichannel capabilities, and can minimize onboarding time and eliminate complexity.
Platforms like BigCommerce can reduce the time required to get started on other channels from days to minutes. Through native integrations with eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, BigCommerce has made it easy for merchants to list and sell cross-channel while managing listings, orders and inventory through a central console. This alone saves countless hours wasted switching between disparate systems and interfaces.
If you had to give advice to retailers looking toward a unified commerce experience, what would it be?
With 55% of consumers beginning product searches on Amazon, retailers should consider selling on marketplaces (including Google Shopping and eBay) to build brand visibility with a new audience. Leveraging technologies like BigCommerce, retailers can now easily test product listings across a variety of sales channels without adding financial or operational costs, helping them better understand customer preferences.
Each shopping channel attracts a unique set of shoppers, so retailers should also look for tools that can customize merchandise’s presence to accommodate each channel’s specific requirements. This includes capabilities that enable you to tweak the product’s name, price, options and description based on channel best practices.
Retailers should also focus on delivering exceptional and targeted customer experiences. Since this cannot be achieved by using separate tools, merchants need a single platform that provides a unified view of shoppers across all channels they are using to discover and buy products.
Retailers industrywide are pulling out all the stops to stay connected with their customers — but not all are succeeding.
Omnichannel customers expect that their favorite retailers deliver a seamless, consistent, convenient and fast experience regardless of whether they shop online, on their phones or in a store. While retailers are striving to create a unified omnichannel journey, they still struggle to keep up the pace.
Worse, some efforts are creating new operational gaps. And every disrupted, clunky, or just plain frustrating experience lets the customer down — an issue that jeopardizes long-term shopper loyalty.
The following suggestions, gleaned during the recent eTail East conference event in Boston, will help brands add new engagement tools in a way that will solidify customer relationships:
&bull Test all new solutions before long-term adoption. Retailers know they need to service their customers on their terms. This requires brands to adopt new services that can drive engagement, and scale as volume increases. Retail leaders have learned to focus on solutions that best serve customers — and drive value — at every point in their buying journey. That’s why testing is so critical. Testing not only helps ensure functionality, performance, usability and consistency, it also brings retailers one step closer to delivering a top-notch customer experience. More importantly, tests need to be done in a digestible manner to produce results. That said, companies that pursue small-scale tests and then scale the breadth will hit their goals and embark on faster rollouts.
&bull Cultivate tech-savvy brand ambassadors. Store-level associates have transitioned beyond mere clerks into brand ambassadors. As such, these savvy associates need to know how each and every customer-facing solution works — and how to use them — to engage the shopper. “Retailers that want to deliver a good experience need well-trained associates,” said Dan Fagan, VP of CRM and media at Destination XL Group. “It has never been more critical to invest in people who can use solutions to assist with the sale, are well-versed in leveraging online client data and interact with customers throughout their store visit.”
&bull Update legacy systems to align the omnichannel journey. The key to driving a unified customer journey is to break down all of the walls throughout the enterprise and create a truly customer-centric experience. Whether shoppers use e-commerce, mobile, in-store kiosks, buy online and pick up in the store, or rely on delivery drones, they need to know that they can complete their shopping trip easily. However, this is no easy task for retailers that continue to manage this journey with outdated, legacy-based systems. Consider Jet.com. The company, which was used to adding solutions in a very agile manner, had to change its mindset once Walmart acquired it in September 2016. “Now when we want to update an aging system, we need to ask ourselves: How necessary is the transition, what will be the return on investment, and, most importantly, will it add value to the customer experience?” said Ben Running, director of Jet.com’s innovation lab. “These are hard decisions when evaluating &lsquotechnology debt’ and determining how long to keep using a solution,” he added. “The key is to stay focused on where you can find the most value.”
Deena M. Amato-McCoy