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
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 ‘digitally 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:
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.”
• 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.
Amazon blends online and offline
Eleven brick-and-mortar stores — and counting. That’s where Amazon Books stands after the opening of its new outpost in New York.
Located on 34th Street across from the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan, the 5,200-sq.-ft. store is part bookstore, part high-tech electronics shop, with a cafe for shoppers to linger in.
The space has a modern look, with accent lighting and wood flooring, fixtures and display tables. There is a spacious children’s area, set off with carpeting and cozy seating. Coffee (from hipster fave, Stumptown Coffee Roasters) and other beverages, along with pastries and snack items, are sold in the cafe, which has both table and counter seating.
More than a traditional bookstore, Amazon Books is a direct extension of the online giant’s digital book-buying experience. The integration of digital and physical retail is evident throughout the store, from customer reviews on product nameplates to integration of the Amazon app in the overall shopping experience.
The new location features about 3,700 titles. The selection is based on a combination of factors, including Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads — the company’s review/recommendation site — and its own curators’ assessments.
In a departure from the traditional spine-out presentation, the books are placed on the shelves with their covers facing out. Under each book is a small card with a sampling of a customer review from Amazon.com, along with its star rating (most of the titles in the store are rated four stars or higher) and the number of reviews it has received.
The label also includes a bar code that customers can scan with their smartphone, via the Amazon app, to see the price, more details on the book’s ratings and additional reviews.
Curated: What sets Amazon Books apart from conventional bookstores is how it’s curated. Similar to Amazon’s online offerings, the books are displayed in a variety of categories, with titles appearing in multiple sections. The store features all the standard categories, such as New Nonfiction, Cooking, Travel, Science Fiction, Self Improvement, Young Adult, etc.
But Amazon’s vast storehouse of data also allows for more unusual selections. Customers will also find such categories as Highly Rated (4.8 stars and above), Page Turners (books Kindle readers finished in three days or less), 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, and Goodreads’ Most-Read Classics. In another adaptation of an online feature, one display is devoted to recommendations based on books the customer has already read — If You Like, You’ll Love This. Data also allows Amazon to add a local element to each location.
Gadgets: However, books are only part of the merchandise mix. The store also serves as a showcase for all of Amazon’s tech products, from Fire television and the Alexa Smart Home system to Echo and the Kindle e-reader, and related accessories.
The items are displayed on tables and stands, making it easy for customers to test drive — and hopefully buy — the products. Several displays are devoted to accessories. And plenty of associates are hovering around to answer questions.
Amazon Prime members have the advantage when it comes to pricing, paying the same price for items while in Amazon Books as they would on Amazon.com. For non-Prime customers, Amazon devices are the same price as on Amazon.com, but books and other items are sold at list price.
Customers can look up prices on the pricing scanners located throughout the store or by using the app. Goods can be paid for with a credit card or charged to the customer’s Prime account. The store doesn’t accept cash.
Amazon Books will open two more locations in 2017, at Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, and at Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif., giving it a total of 13 by the end of the year. Amazon would not comment on how many bookstores it plans to open in 2018.