This year has been tough on the UK high street. Throughout 2018, retail news has been a cycle of store closures, big brands entering administration and never-ending competition from online giants. This makes it very clear that every brand, no matter how big or small, can afford to be complacent.
The death of the high street narrative is tired, and untrue. It’s far more likely to be the death of the high street as we know it. It is time for retailers to evolve. To do this, and to remain relevant and competitive, they should make every decision with business outcomes in mind. The keys to this evolution are technology and data. Together, they can play a vital role in driving innovation, while simultaneously enhancing customer experience.
Faster, frictionless customer experience
Think about the last time you had a great customer experience, online or in-store. Chances are the item you wanted was easy to order, in stock and either available at that very moment, or delivered the next day after a text specified your delivery time.
The point is, from the moment of inspiration – when you have decided to purchase a product – to holding the item in your hands, the process was as fast and required as little input from you as possible. This could well be a manifesto for the idealised frictionless customer experience.
Customers are always seeking greater convenience, less effort and faster gratification, and they will shop wherever this holy trinity is found. This is the natural progression of retail, and often a key differentiator between in-store and online. While all bricks-and-mortar stores find this difficult to achieve, a major hurdle for retailers with both online and physical presences is making sure that they are offering the same customer experience across all channels. A frictionless customer experience inevitably leads to happy customers, and those brands unable to achieve this will quickly be left behind.
Keeping customers in the cloud
Digital innovation is the key differentiator for companies who want to push the boundaries of retail. By using cloud technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to automate key processes, any retailer has the opportunity deliver frictionless customer experiences.
One problem many retailers run into is that their customer experiences aren’t joined-up. Consumers have grown accustomed to shopping online, and being instantly recognised as soon as they enter their password. However, in omnichannel retail, customer data is siloed, meaning a valuable loyal customer online might not be recognised instore or is a stranger outside their local branch. From the shopper’s perspective, this only slows things down and demands more of their time and effort before they get the product they want.
Fortunately, cloud technology gives retailers a single, accessible storage of secure customer data to draw from. Once the first transaction has been completed, the customer’s data and preferences are stored. This data can not only be used online, but it can also be accessed from any branch. AI-enabled digital assistants can also use this data to offer individual customers personalised product suggestions.
This is not only beneficial to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers, but is particularly useful for retailers that have both an online and physical presence. Cloud technology can help ensure that customers are having a perfectly symmetrical experience across every channel they shop, whether it’s mobile, online or in-store. By giving these customers digital identities and storing them in the cloud, these retailers can ensure a smooth omnichannel experience.
Inside the store of the future
So, what does it look like when all these technologies come together? There are multiple scenarios where we want an item, however we fail to buy it at the time. It could be that your browse online for an item of clothing and find that it’s out of stock. Or, you find the perfect item, add it to your basket, but get distracted and forget to check out. Alternatively, you could be in your local store, and find that they have the item you want, but not in your size. All of these situations are inconvenient, for both yourself and the retailer. You have missed out on an item, and they have missed out on a sale.
In the store of the future, this inconvenience could be solved, by the customer doing very little – and the retailer utilising their new cloud technology. A few days after one of these scenarios, the shopper could walk past the very store they were browsing in, and receive a notification on their phone, telling them the item they were looking for is now instore and in their size. If they would rather avoid the queue inside, they can skip the cashier and simply buy the item through the store’s phone app. If they would like to try it on for size, they can walk in.
However, how realistic is this store of the future? We know that Amazon Go already uses computer vision, deep learning algorithms and sensor fusion to automate much of the purchase, checkout, and payment steps. A completely frictionless customer experience could be right around the corner, if only retailers manage to connect the dots that make up frictionless customer experience.
It has been difficult to see so many staples of the British high street face hardships this year. In retrospect, we can begin to understand why: they should have shed their legacy technologies, and implemented digital strategies that benefitted the customer journey. If they had done this, who knows if their fates would have been different.
The best way to succeed in 2018, and going forward, is to learn from these retailers. By gaining a single view of the customer, and a frictionless customer experience, retailers will stop missing out on sales that were lost through sheer inconvenience. By offering customers greater convenience, less effort and faster gratification, these retailers will lead, whether it’s online, in-store, or both.
First, retailers have a big decision to make in the ever changing retail environment: will they be a store of the future, or the past?
Patrick Fahy, retail lead, KCOM
Image Credit: Georgejmclittle / Shutterstock