Covid-19 has accelerated the dominance of online customer engagement both in practice and in preference. Eerie scenes of empty high streets are the corollary of huge spikes in the number of people transferring much of their consumer behavior online. And this looks likely to be a shift that’s here to stay: for example, ForgeRock research showed that in the UK, the majority of people surveyed (63 percent) plan to shop only or primarily online post-pandemic.
In the retail sector, where this shift is particularly pronounced, one of the most crucial side effects for businesses to get to grips with is that greater consumer engagement online is changing consumer expectations across all channels of engagement – including in-person. In other words, the expectations consumers have of in-store interactions are increasingly being shaped by their seamless and personalized online experiences.
The implications of this for retailers are clear: those who fail to adjust to these new habits and expectations will quickly run into consumer dissatisfaction and then loss of revenue as customers take their business elsewhere. If the in-store experience is to have a role in the ‘next normal’, retailers must learn to connect the online with the offline. They must learn, in other words, to deliver an omnichannel solution.
Identifying the issue
The first step for a retailer hoping to achieve this is to ensure that their underlying infrastructure allows data to be shared across the business. This is, at heart, an issue of retailers thinking about how they manage their users’ identities.
A common problem is that for many retailers, different parts of the business work on different, fragmented customer data systems - for example, customer data stored for the purposes of the loyalty card program may be totally separate from the system that houses online user logins. Usually, this situation arises because as the business evolved over the years through acquisitions and organic growth, retaining and bolting on old systems seemed like the easiest or cheapest option.
This becomes a problem for the retailer because this patchwork of systems means there is no central view of what customer data the company has or where it is stored. For the customer, this manifests as that familiar and frustrating experience of one part of a business seemingly having no idea about something you told another part about only a short while ago.
This points to the fact that how you arrange and connect your data systems directly affects the customer experience of engaging with different parts of your business. If systems are disjointed, shoppers may have to speak to multiple people before finding the correct product information, or they may even have different credentials for different services at the same company. In light of changing consumer expectations, this kind of service falls way short.
To make matters worse, these so-called ‘identity silos’ also create a security and privacy risk. Fragmented services preclude the possibility of a unified security protocol, leaving customer data inconsistently protected. And without a unified view of the entirety of customer data held across the business, retailers will also struggle to comply with customers’ opt-out requests. If you have no central function that knows where all the data is stored, how can you reassure a customer that you’ve removed all their records? This could result in businesses inadvertently breaching privacy laws like CCPA and GDPR.
Tomorrow’s technology meeting today’s expectations
So what does an alternative look like? How can retailers deliver the seamless, integrated, omnichannel experience, which their customers are increasingly demanding? And how can they do it while striking the right balance between security and experience?
Technology must sit at the center of this new offering. And while a truly integrated in-store customer journey remains largely hypothetical for now, the technology, which could enable it, is real and readily available for retailers today. For example, recent trials have shown that biometrics can be used in-store to allow customers to authenticate payments using only their faces. Extra friction can be introduced for high-value transactions, allowing customers to balance their desire for frictionless experiences with adequate security. Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT), can be used to enable sensors to monitor a customer’s movement around the shop floor, adapting the store environment, such as the color of walls or signage, to their preferences - all while generating useful insights for the retailer.
From the customer’s point of view, these types of technologies could transform the retail experience, bringing it more in line with what they have come to expect from their online interactions over the past 12 months. A customer could walk into a store and log into their online account on their phone using face recognition. As they walk around they could press their phone against products and signage, displaying extra information on screen. They would be able to see personalized deals and details for each product on their phone – no more chasing down staff for more information.
When you consider that 82 percent of customers now consult their smartphone when making a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store, it’s clear that these new integrated services are key to keeping the in-store experience relevant. Times are changing, and it’s up to retailers to catch up and remain current. These solutions are closer than you expect and are not solely reserved for big players like Amazon. That said, while the potential is clearly there for retailers to deploy them, businesses will need a solid solution-based underpinning to use them to their full extent.
A modern, adaptable and centralized solution
The key for retailers hoping to realize this vision will be to take a step back and invest in overhauling their identity systems with the objective of bringing them all under a single umbrella. Once this centralized solution has been established, they can begin to reap the benefits of an omnichannel experience.
The first step should be to establish a clear view of where they are storing and processing their customer data, and how this impacts the customer journey. Many businesses are stunned by just how many different identity systems they already have, and retailers, which typically have complex organizational structures, are no exception. Once this audit is complete, the retailer should have a clearer pathway to fix the disconnects and mitigate the friction into which customers are running.
A happy side effect of doing this will be that in the future, once you have a system built with customer identity at the center, it will be easier to continue to build and modernize from the center outwards. The end result will be having all your customer data in a single, streamlined unit, without any duplicates or fragmented sub-sections. What’s more, modern identity management platforms should seamlessly integrate with existing identity systems, existing applications, and any new solutions the IT department wishes to deploy. Another benefit will be an immediate improvement to the security of that data since only once you have a comprehensive view of your data can you be sure that you are adequately complying with privacy and security laws.
By implementing a centralized identity solution in this way, coupled with cutting-edge technology, retailers can offer a truly omnichannel experience, complete with greater personalization and frictionless interactions.
The golden rule in retail is that the customer always comes first. And with customer expectations transforming faster than ever over the past year, retailers need to think carefully about how they can combine modern identity management solutions with cutting-edge technology to keep up. The cost of failure will be falling behind the competition, but those that get their omnichannel offering right will reap the rewards.
Gerhard Zehethofer, VP for IoT, ForgeRock