Halting the retail spending slump


Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed that retail sales in the UK fell by 1.5 per cent in December 2017 compared with November, which underlines the difficulties that retailers are facing in terms of persuading consumers to spend money. With consumers being squeezed by inflationary pressures, this should come as no surprise. However, addressing this squeeze in consumer spending is not purely about improving a company’s external image, but also tackling the internal productivity issues that continue to dog UK businesses.  

The UK economy has been hampered by productivity issues for over a decade now and the situation shows little sign of improving. The ONS figures have shown that in 2016, the output per hour worked in the UK was 15.1% below the average, compared to the rest of G7 countries. While there are certainly several factors at play in the current status quo, retail leaders should realise that revamping internal working practices and culture to enable staff to do their jobs more efficiently is an essential part of improving levels of customer engagement, and therefore encouraging consumers to come back to shopping. Technology, allied to a closer focus on raising productivity, has a huge part to play here.  

The power of public persona  

We all know that good marketing and promoting a positive brand image are essential to any retailer’s chances of success and that they are extremely powerful tools in initiating the customer engagement process. Building a strong image and reputation can help to establish customer recognition over time, and is instrumental to the cultivation of brand loyalty.  

Building a positive brand image begins with an excellent customer service experience. For the online or mobile channel, this means an easy-to-navigate website based on customer needs, clear brand messaging and a responsive online customer care. For physical stores this means a logical store layout, strong visual representation of products, and staff who are highly knowledgeable and able to effectively advise and guide customers through the buying process. 

A productive workforce makes happy customers  

However, these efforts to increase sales and foster long-term loyalty with customers will fall flat if staff are not empowered to serve and support customers as efficiently as possible across all sales channels. An ambitious retail business should be looking at how its workforce is operating, and ask itself a few important questions. Are staff at all levels of the organisation able to bring the best possible experience to customers without significant delay? Are sales, retention and customer care processes fully joined up, all the way from the point of sale in-store or online, to contact centre teams behind the scenes? Is an organisation’s ability to provide this level of highly personalised, comprehensive service being reflected in positive customer feedback and improved NPS scores? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then internal productivity is likely to be a big part of the problem. For retailers, maintaining an effective customer engagement process is therefore an essential element in maintaining good performance and a positive reputation.

Today, consumers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice, so if staff working at retail businesses are unable to help customers to browse and shop in the way that best suits them, the staff’s ability to serve, convert and retain customers will be hampered. Therefore, organisations must invest in a productive workforce, where roles are clearly defined and processes are managed effectively across all stages of customer interaction, from the point of customer product discovery all the way through product selection, purchase and repurchase. This philosophy should be applied to all members of staff, including store associates, contact centre representatives and a retailer’s online self-service facility. 

Raising productivity should not be limited purely to working out how to carry out current processes more effectively, but also includes embracing new approaches that can help retailers to better serve their customers. Organisations should not be afraid of experimenting with new methods and technologies as part of this focus. In recent years, we have seen the growth of CRM systems, automated customer service and chatbot technology, amongst many others. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality are also promising to make businesses and their workforces more productive in the near future. 

The rise of intelligent guided selling 

Alongside the current disruptive innovations that are shaking up the way the retail sector operates, retailers need to explore technology systems that empower staff to assist customers in making better, more tailored buying choices, thereby making employees more productive. This is where an intelligent guided selling platform, can make a difference. 

Whether in-store, online or co-browsing with contact centre staff, an intelligent guided selling platform works by gently promoting and guiding customers in a step-by-step process, through a logical sequence of decisions which can lead to an informed purchase. It can leverage insight from data gathered through methods such as lifestyle assessments, which in return can help uncover key needs for consumers and work out what needs to be done to meet them. This can make purchasing easier and more personalised. In essence, this technology can help to uncover the key needs of customers and work out which products best fit their requirements. This information intuitively makes purchasing easier and more personalised, helping to drive higher conversion rates, larger order values, more frequent up-selling, and improved customer satisfaction. 

Greater efficiency, long-lasting satisfaction  

In today’s digitally savvy environment, consumers expect their shopping experience to be dynamic and personalised to their needs. It is no longer sufficient to simply offer a product with some basic information and a price tag, and hoping for shoppers to pick it off the shelves. Consumers are flooded with the complexity of choice and alternatives; therefore speed and tailored information can play a crucial role in the consumer decision-making process.  

Solving the productivity conundrum is about fostering new philosophies, which prioritise the creation of a fully unified, holistic approach to meeting the needs of the customer across sales channels. Technology has the power to be the great enabler, with solutions such as intelligent guided selling platforms going a long way towards empowering staff in providing a consistent, efficient service that promises customers a high level of personalisation. If backed up by a positive philosophy that is communicated throughout the organisation and embraced by all parties, retailers will stand a good chance of maintaining competitive advantage in these tough economic times.     

Dave Stark, CEO of Conversity 

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