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Top five predictions on how tech will transform retail in 2019

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio)

Last year presented a particularly turbulent time for the retail sector – in fact, recent news (opens in new tab) declared 2018 as the ‘worst year on record’ for retail sales. And 2019 isn’t going to be much easier: it’s set to be the retail sector’s toughest yet (opens in new tab). With closure after store closure dominating the headlines, the need for companies to be at the top of their game has never been greater. Retailers must act now in order to attract customers into their shops and engage with their brands, or else they risk becoming the high street’s latest victim.

But how can they do that? Two words: customer experience.

Failure will be imminent for consumer-facing brands that don’t offer the crème de le crème of customer service. Retailers need be rethinking the whole customer journey, across everything they’re delivering to customers – they need to offer seamless buying experiences (opens in new tab) and eliminate queues and waste.

The retail sector is not doing enough to make customers happy – and is wasting too much in the process. This could spell failure both at the front-end, when it comes to driving customers to a brand, and at the back-end, when it comes to operating inefficiencies.

1. The traditional queue will become extinct

How is queueing still a concept in 2018? It cannot exist – not when we have technologies that make the cashier redundant. And not when it turns millennials off – now that millennials make up the biggest portion of the average retailer’s target audience. 

Customers don’t want to wait around until companies deign to fix their problem or take their order. The time for 24/7 is now – round-the-clock service and instant access to a person who can immediately help a consumer with a query, no matter what that is. Audience mapping, dynamic phone numbers on product pages, predictive routing and specific handlers assigned to answer queries about certain products can help with this for web to call communications.

2. Tailored products will lead the way

Up until now, retailers and brands have been mass-producing clothes and other products, in the hope that customers will want to buy them. This business models needs changing: it is no longer acceptable for consumer input to come after production.

Engineering the product around the customer makes perfect sense – and it needs to become more widespread. It’s starting to happen – BeLLE China (opens in new tab) is using 3D foot scans to customise a final fit of shoes, whilst Snow + Rock (opens in new tab) offers a custom ski/snowboard boot fitting service – but next year it should spread across most brands and across clothing. Why? Because a customer shouldn’t have to wear a pair of ill-fitting, uncomfortable shoes. Or a slightly-too-short cheap t-shirt. They need tailored products that will fit their specifications perfectly.

3. Waste reduction will be key to customer satisfaction

In producing what there is no demand for, the amount of wastage is becoming a significant issue, particularly in the fashion sector. Producing clothes destroys the environment, with global textile production producing 1.2bn tonnes of carbon emissions a year (opens in new tab) – equating to more than international flights and maritime shipping. This is unacceptable.

In 2017, a staggering 235 million items of unwanted clothing were sent to landfill (opens in new tab). These figures are shocking—and it’s going to turn off customers, who are more conscious about the environment that ever before.

Technologies that can virtually create or digitally customise items – as well as ones that can tap into customer behaviour – are all fundamental in sparking a major change that is well overdue: selling more, wasting less.

If you have the data to know what customers want, you don’t have to produce what the customer never wanted in the first place. And this will result in natural savings – therefore bringing down costs and impact on our planet.

4. Remaindering stores will remain no more!

When retail starts to produce what customers actually want to buy, there will be no space for remaindering outlets who rely on selling on the old stock from previous fashion lines and product ranges that customers didn’t want first time round.

Whilst this may spell the end of some prominent outlets, it will save on so much waste – including the massive amounts of fuel required in shipping products across the country, the packaging to keep them protected, as well as the substantial amounts of the electricity to power them – and other emissions that contribute to our global footprint.

5. Customers’ needs must remain the top priority

The customer must be the superstar, the celebrity, the VIP, in the retail landscape in 2019. Customer pulse now needs to influence every step of a retailer’s journey. That includes the need for brands to communicate with customers in the right way. This includes the use of voice, which is on the rise.

In today’s increasingly digital and saturated marketplace, consumers have an increased expectation for their transactions to be instantaneous, immersive and entirely seamless. Today’s customers lack time – they want to place their orders and resolve any problems in minutes. By allowing consumers to communicate with them through the use of apps and cloud-based communications systems, brands can elevate the customer experience. A happy customer is a loyal one, and will continue to pay dividends as a repeat buyer.

In order to thrive in 2019, brands must ignore the past and look to the future. Ultimately, the focus should be placed on what customers want and need. New customer-centric technologies could play a key role in transforming the retail experience – and thus boosting customer footfall.

Anne de Kerckhove, CEO, Freespee (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio

Anne de Kerckhove is the CEO of Freespee and a ‘startup addict’. She has over 15 years’ experience leading fast-growing European technology companies, and is an investor and mentor.