Technology in the retail sector: customers are looking for more convenience – always and everywhere!

It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing stationary retail trade: the attempt to connect the on and offline worlds of brand and customer experience while keeping up with e-commerce providers that have already relocated digital touchpoints to an analogue shopping environment. Amazon is driving the technology behind this development. Nevertheless, traditional retailers will be able to stay the pace as long as they increasingly open themselves to digital transformation – certainly in a technical sense, but above all with a view to their emotional bond with customers.

Of course this is not a new approach: a video released by Apple back in 1985 painted an astonishing picture of what a future kitchen would look like. Even back then, a clunky little Mac dangled from beneath the kitchen cabinet. Today’s Amazon Dash button is substantially smaller. Hardly bigger than a matchbox, it is nevertheless an effective shopping tool. Customers fit the plastic component in their kitchens, bathrooms and other areas of their houses to order replacement detergents, a crate of water or toilet paper from Amazon at the push of a button, depending on which brand is set up on the Dash. It is a touchpoint for particularly easy-going customers and recalls the household-familiar ‘Pril’ flower.

The Pril flower was an advertising logo created by the detergent brand Pril in the 1970s. Customers were encouraged to decorate their household tiles with the multi-coloured stickers. This ingenious marketing ploy was an outstanding example of how to boost customer loyalty. The brand imprinted itself indelibly in the collective consciousness, to become part of everyday life. Broadly speaking, the Amazon Dash button is a far more potent version of the Pril flower, designed for smart homes.

Unlike the Pril flower, whose principal benefit was making the detergent synonymous with expert and instantaneous removal of glue, the Dash button provides customers with substantial added value. Now there’s no need to jot anything down, flip open the laptop or click through apps – it’s not even necessary to remember to order the next load of detergent or toilet paper. After all, the Dash button is programmed to hammer this information into our consciousness whenever supplies are running short. What’s more, this creates almost immutable brand loyalty. Who would even consider switching to a low-involvement product if purchasing this way is so easy?

Happy customers? It’s hard to imagine a more profound customer experience!

The Amazon Dash also expresses a holistic understanding of using technology to create an optimal customer experience. This kind of technical gadget makes life easier, forges indelible emotional bonds, evokes at least a perception of personalisation and communicates a promise of service– namely a hassle-free and prompt order and delivery process. Besides data-driven web shop personalisation, ‘pure players’ number convenience and immediacy among the key elements of customer experience, above all in service and marketing. Until now it has been considered hewn in stone that the stationary retail trade sector – held back by its ‘brick and mortar’ structures – would take an extremely long time to catch up, or would follow with extreme hesitancy.

But while other retailers were smiling superciliously at the Dash button, decrying it as nothing other than a PR gimmick, the British retailer Waitrose, a supermarket chain with roughly 300 outlets and an online store, had already gone shopping. The outcome: a deal with the US startup Hiku and a little white magnet as a shopping assistant for the whole family.

hiku by Waitrose (photo: Waitrose)
hiku by Waitrose (photo: Waitrose)

The hiku is a discreetly sized kitchen magnet with a fitted scanner that customers use to scan their shopping in their refrigerators or anywhere else in their homes. It then syncs automatically with the shopping app. The little helper also has a speech recognition feature. “Something that I will happily use in my kitchen” was the response of the customer focus group).

Useful technology as an emotional lever in shops

But what is happening in the actual outlets, which more and more are becoming the retail sector’s costly Achilles’ heel? Customers in the new flagship store of specialist football retailer 11Teamsports in Berlin are invited to use an interactive touchscreen display installation called Replica Kiosk to navigate through the spectrum of Nike-sponsored teams. At the same time the connected merchandise information system tells them whether their preferred strip is available in the right size from the store or the online shop.

Nike’s interactive ‘playing table’ at 11Teamsports (Photo: Achim Hatzius)
Nike’s interactive ‘playing table’ at 11Teamsports (Photo: Achim Hatzius)

A multitouch Footwear Table that several users can operate at the same time is also taking a new approach. Customers place a Nike shoe on the table and the system uses RFID technology to recognise the model. It then shows in real time which sizes are available in the store or online shop and also provides information on prices and additional product features. From there it is only a small step to a digital mirror that uses digital technology to display all relevant information and colour combinations while customers are trying on the shoe. Is it a gimmick? Maybe. But it does use digital features for three essential aspects of customer experience: emotional content, entertainment and individual product involvement.

Networked employees for an enhanced shopping experience

Mayersche Buchhandlung, a chain of bookstores, also has plenty of novel ideas to foster brand loyalty among online customers. But the efforts the chain has undertaken so far plainly show that a retailer has to glide simultaneously across a number of fields to improve customer experience in a more complete sense. These areas include details such as complementary, attractive content in the outlets (video trailers), an online community, multitouch kiosk systems, a shopping app with scan feature, click & collect, and above all, shop assistants acting as omni-channel interfaces in the interests of customer experience.

For instance, customers will in future be able to scan photos of the shop assistants in the store and then display their personal recommendations on a smartphone. “This way we can give our customers immediate recommendations, even if all our sales assistants are currently busy”, says Stephan Erlenkaemper, head of IT at Mayersche Buchhandlung. In the future, staff photos will be posted in the shop window to enable recommendations and online shopping even when the store is closed.

The mobile dovetail

This trend is only set to continue. For instance, with Beacon, a diminutive digital torch that uses Bluetooth to broadcast advertising and information to the smartphones of interested pedestrians as they pass a shop window. This tool might just manage to blur the boundaries between brick & mortar and the online world, bringing them together in harmonious co-existence. Like at Target, one of the largest retailers in the United States. What the retailer is currently testing in 50 outlets goes way beyond the mobile broadcasting of advertising claims outside shop windows or in the store à la Beacon, and has raised the hopes of marketers that entirely new communication channels may emerge. After all, Target sees its Beacon as a tool to comprehensively improve the shopping experience.

target
The Target app enriches customer experience in stationary retail trade (Photo: screenshot)

Its central element is a service going by the name of ‘Target Run’ that works along the lines of a newsfeed, and that provides users with information, maps, lists, special offers and product recommendations, and which also functions as a kind of homepage for the Target app. This saves time for customers, facilitates shopping, and helps in locating relevant products. Target conspicuously decided to use an in-house app for its Beacon project instead of cooperating with one of the numerous providers of current Beacon and loyalty solutions. This is certainly a sensible decision for a chain of Target’s size, as it is sure to enhance brand experience and foster customer loyalty more than an app developed by an external provider. Interestingly, Target is also considering how to network its shop assistants. In future, customers will be able to use the Beacon-ready app to request help from a shop assistant.

This is precisely what tomorrow’s customer experience will come down to: making all customers equally happy no matter which touchpoints they use, and not just deploying technology to improve the shopping experience and make it more convenient. It’s important to remember that for a long time to come, there will always be customers that for one reason or another want to interact with a shop assistant. After all, offering a human interface is part of customer experience, too. In contrast, a digital button fitted to the refrigerator can only place orders. So far, at least.

Check-Box

  • Pure players are building technology leadership to expand online customer experience and are increasingly using new devices to occupy touchpoints in the offline world.
  • New and interactive technologies offer the stationary retail sector the option of adding emotional and functional aspects to the shopping experience.
  • In future, networked shop assistants will become omni-channel interfaces within stationary retail trade.
  • Mobile dovetailing can blur the boundaries between brick & mortar and the online world.

Featured Image: © estherpoon – Fotolia.com

Published by

Olaf Kolbrück

Olaf Kolbrück

Olaf Kolbrück is Chief Editor at etailment.de, a prestigious online platform for e-commerce. He is also author of the book Erfolgsfaktor Online-Marketing ("Online Marketing Success"). Before that he worked for many years as an Internet business reporter for the marketing journal Horizont.