In some ways, today’s leading retailers are in a privileged position: customer behaviour may have become more complex and demanding, but there is an arsenal of technology available to meet these new demands within the store environment.
From Bluetooth beacons and electronic shelf labels, to mobile point of sale and loyalty passbooks, it’s entirely possible to create an experience that blends the digital and physical, to overcome the shortcomings of each channel individually, and provide a satisfying, omnichannel encounter.
Yet, how many of us have actually been into a store that successfully brings together all the traditions of bricks-and-mortar shopping with the digital era’s modern twist? Not many I would guess – and Forrester’s Laura Naparstek and Diana Gold concur following their recent trip to some flagship retail outlets in New York City.
Particularly among those retailers targeting Millennial shoppers (aged 18-34), it is widely accepted that technology is key to engagement in the store environment. However, Forrester’s two road-testers found a significant gap between what digital devices could theoretically do for the customer journey, and whether – in reality – they made physical retail a smoother, more pleasurable experience.
Among the examples they give are the Nike store, which equips sales associates with mobile POS devices, yet none of them were being utilised, and the custom-design shoe station at New Balance, which ended with a lengthy queue to process the order.
This gap between having digital tools and being able to integrate them into the store experience is a real cause for concern. Omnichannel technology is being talked about at a senior level, it’s even being invested in by the forward-thinking, but is the value of it being realised in terms of average shopper value?
Naturally, as the omnichannel model matures, the industry is going to face new challenges, and we may have just reached the latest teething problem: education and buy-in at customer level.
By this, I don’t necessarily mean the customers themselves – although in the case of self-service devices, education is necessary to ensure consumers feel comfortable managing their own ordering and checkout process – but store associates, dealing with customers.
In the comparatively faceless world of online shopping, being able to go to a store and deal with a person, one-to-one, is one of retail’s great pleasures. The technologies that businesses are investing in are supposed to make this service smoother, by arming sales associates with quicker access to operational data.
Theoretically this is an incredibly powerful tool; from checking inventory from the shop floor, to placing online orders when an item isn’t in stock, and targeting upselling based on a customer’s purchasing history, store personnel have all the key data they require to serve shoppers personally from a single device. Yet, the success of this opportunity lives or dies on a single factor: how well they are trained to operate it.
If their key salespeople aren’t using mobile POS in one of their largest stores, Nike needs to be asking why not. Are the device connections to the network unreliable? Are the interaction processes too complicated to remember? Are there an insufficient number of tablets available during peak periods? Or are their sales associates just fearful of change?
Similarly with New Balance, if the customer is going to be delighted by the opportunity to design their own shoe, but let down at the final interaction by having to wait in a queue, is this technology novelty actually delivering return on investment? Or is it in fact leading to more customers leaving dissatisfied than a traditional, off-the-shelf retail experience?
People are a company’s strongest asset. Reassuring their role in today’s digitally-led store environment, and making their use of technology in bricks-and-mortar encounters second nature, is the next stride towards building a seamless omnichannel experience. Otherwise, retailers run the risk of putting in an expensive piece of equipment that doesn’t actually add any customer relationship value.