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
Toy retailer prepares for newest business channel — an online marketplace
Toys “R” Us is adding a new customer touch-point that it will use to get merchandise into shoppers hands faster.
Making good on its promise to serve its customers whenever, wherever and however they want to shop, the toy retailer entered into an agreement with Mirakl, a global marketplace solutions provider, to create an online marketplace for the Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us brands in the United States and Canada. The platform, set to launch in 2018, will enable the company to increase its product selection and decrease time to market for new merchandise.
The retailer expects the platform to expand the breadth and depth of its merchandise selection, and give the brand exposure to a larger audience. It will also allow Toys “R" Us to leverage data from third-party products and sellers to identify potential, new retail partners and influence in-store offerings, the company said.
"As the leading toy and baby retailer, customers expect us to have the latest and greatest assortment of products available, said Lance Wills, Toys “R” Us’ global chief technology officer. “The marketplace model provides the opportunity to accomplish just that.”
The move comes on the heels of another new initiative. Building off of its new brand positioning, "Today We Play,” Toys “R” Us is launching "play labs" at 42 stores — an in-store experience where kids (and parents) can play with some of the season's hottest toys.
Both efforts coincide with the retailer’s renewed focus on modernization. Toys "R" filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 18 with a goal of restructuring its outstanding debt. Last week, it closed on $3.1 billion of financing facilities that will support its operations during its restructuring process allow it to invest in various initiatives, including the renovation and modernization of its stores.
Holiday digital priorities
E-commerce holiday sales are expected to increase 18% to 21% this holiday season, reaching $111 to $114 billion, according to the annual holiday sales forecast from Deloitte. With online growth eclipsing total holiday sales growth (expected to rise 4% to 4.5%), savvy retailers will be pulling out all the stops to step up their digital game.
Industry experts say retailers need to create an engagement strategy based on individual customer needs — along with the optimal solutions to support their efforts.
“Retailers that fail to &lsquodigitally disrupt’ themselves run the risk of getting left behind,” said Gordon White, general manager of The Social Client, a digital marketing provider. “At the same time, investing in digital tools for the sake of disruption will show minimal return. Technology should enable and enhance the user experience.”
Among the top digital strategies this holiday season are:
&bull Personalization. To attract shoppers, retailers need to tailor the shopping experience to individual needs. Personalizing marketing messages is the easiest way to jump into the game.
“There are different types of customers, and all have different needs,” said Brett Bair, principal strategist at Monetate.
Despite having access to a wealth of customer behavior and purchasing data, companies still don’t effectively use this information to meet consumer expectations. However, there is still time. The first step is to centralize all customer data, making information actionable. Experts also advise retailers to keep messaging simple.
“Don’t overdo initiatives just to be top of mind,” said Jason VandeBoom, founder of ActiveCampaign, a provider of integrated email marketing, marketing automation and CRM. “Begin analyzing customer actions from previous messages and how these turned into purchases. Also, identify how they interact with various channels.
For those retailers that are behind in their initiatives, it is not too late to start.
“Keep programs simple, and maintain processes going after the holiday season to learn how to master tailored messaging,” VandeBoom added.
&bull Mobility. Smart devices are the key for retailers to stay engaged with their customers before, during and after the shopping experience. Whether using the internet or an app, retailers need to leverage mobility as a means of keeping consumers and associates abreast of available inventory, the status of in-transit orders and even connect customers with service agents — via live chat or chatbots.
In its 2017 holiday outlook, research firm Forrester emphasized that retailers need to perfect the mobile checkout process ahead of the holiday rush, or they risk losing sales. To smooth mobile checkout, Forrester recommends streamlining the mobile checkout task flow.
“Easy fixes include reducing form fields, asking for only one address for both shipping and billing by default, and adding capabilities to proactively suggest addresses as the user starts to type,” the report stated. “Beware any instances where you ask the customer to enter information that they’ve already added earlier in the process.”
The study also recommends eliminating anything that impedes progress, such as content and text that are too small.
&bull Artificial intelligence. To best meet customer needs, retailers need to know what matters most to shoppers this holiday season. This is where AI, or software that imitates intelligent human behavior, comes into play. Retailers are tapping AI as a support for chatbots. GameStop, for example, used chatbots last holiday season to track its online orders — a service that had a 20% opt-in rate.
“AI will play an increasingly important role to identify which customer questions are better suited to digital tools, and which require live assistance,” White said. “This is especially critical during the holidays as your stores and contact centers begin receiving an influx of customer calls, orders and questions.”
&bull Cloud computing. Besides being more scalable than a licensed solution managed in-house, cloud-based solutions secure customer interactions, sustain load time and manage customer sessions.
Walmart, for example, is investing in high-level graphical processing units, or Nvidia chips. Accessible through a cloud network, this will be the foundation for Walmart to build out AI systems, from natural language processing and image recognition to machine learning.
“Whether ensuring pages load quickly, or push out new iterations of mobile apps or websites, retailers relying on the cloud will be able to scale and keep up momentum throughout the holiday season and beyond,” said Michael Levine, VP of marketing at digital solutions provider Photon.