NRF 2019: Retail’s hottest customer experience frontiers


What’s next in scaling unique customer experiences?

Retail Connections jetted out to NRF’s Big Show in NYC to check out some of the latest tech providers, showcasing innovations to transform customer experience, whether that’s in-store or online, to make the shopping journey more seamless and convenient.

Here we pick our favourite four top retail tech innovations we’ve earmarked as ‘ones to watch’ from the tech on display at the show’s Innovation Lab installation.


Hero – making store staff the star of the show

We heard from Founder and CEO of Hero, Adam Levene, who has created a solution that unlocks retailers’ greatest weapon in the fight against Amazon – their staff.  The solution leverages the insights and knowledge of store associates around the brand and its products letting them answer queries of online shoppers in real-time.  It’s a smart move – by playing to unique strengths of store, namely the abilities of store associates to make personal and relevant recommendations to assist the sale, it also allows store staff to contribute towards digital conversions.

Just like having a customer on WhatsApp, store colleagues can instant message, take video streams of in-store displays and capture other merchandise available in the store via live video, with the customer on a one-to-one basis, making the customer feel like they are in-store, no matter where they are in the world.

It also maximises the staff, meaning that even if the store itself is empty or has a period of lower footfall, they can contribute to converting online shoppers, meaning retailers can maximising every square foot of their retail estate.  Typically, Levene says, retailers using the solution see shoppers are ten times more likely to make a purchase and 60% end up buying more.


Lolli – taking cashback crypto

Cashing in on the BitCoin hype, Lolli is a tool that incentivises shoppers to buy from retailers in return for the chance to earn BitCoin every time they buy.

The next generation in buy-back companies, such as TopCashBack, Lolli brings a new loyalty scheme to the market which taps into our fascination with crypto currencies.  And with almost 22million BitCoin wallets already set up globally and with Bitcoin values reaching $20,000 per token in 2017 – this could be a smart new way to incentivise millennial shoppers.

With Lolli, each shopper has their own digital wallet to control and collect the Bitcoin they earn by making transactions via the Lolli app, which its makers claim gives shoppers a secure way to own the currency whilst shopping online – whether that’s retail purchases or travel bookings.  And thanks to the online and borderless nature of the crypto currency, it means shoppers can claim and spend points wherever they are in the globe.

Whilst we loved the concept, which gives traditional cash back loyalty schemes a new digital flavour, the only fly in the ointment as we see it is the volatility of the crypto currency market. With many reporting on a dip in Bitcoins share values, and continued uncertainty around how best to regulate these new digital currencies, it may make retailers question the longevity of the solution in driving loyalty.


Rohvi – recommerce for retail

Sarah Whiffen, CEO and Founder of retail recommerce solution, Rohvi, gave a polished and thought-provoking overview of the solution on the Innovation Stage.  This is another solution looking to tap into the mindset of Millennials and Gen Z demographics, but this time looking to help retailers benefit from the attitudes to ownership and resale amongst these demographics.

Our wardrobes are changing, Whiffen tell us, and we now have four times as many items of clothing in our wardrobe compared to the 1980s and retailers can benefit from this by embracing resale.  It’s something we as consumers are already used to doing when we shop for cars – trading in our old motors with dealerships to get a proportion of the value off the cost of our new set of wheels, keeping us locked down with that brand of car – so why shouldn’t retailers do the same when it comes to fashion?

Instead of consumers recycling their own clothes through the likes of recommerce apps such as Schpok, Vinted and ThreadUp, through Rohvi, retailers can reverse the resale, buying back items from the customer in return for store credit.

This not only usually sees consumers spending eight times the value of the store credit, but it also allow fashion brands to ‘keep their spot’ in a customer’s wardrobe and close the cycle of circular fashion to the benefit of the retailer.


T-Sort solution – robotic pick and pack

Mike Futch from Tompkins Robotics showcased his army of small format robots which are set to revolutionise warehouse, store replenishment and back-of-store operations.

Staffing warehouses and DCs can be a costly undertaking for retailers and many have sought to automate some of the processes around pick and pack with robotics.  Robotics in the warehouse is not a new concept; in 2017 Amazon reported it had 45,000 robots in its 20 warehouses and fulfilment centres.

But what makes these little bots exciting is their size – each no larger than a dinner plate, this fleet of mini autonomous robots, which integrate into the existing WMS and have in-built sensors to avoid colliding with each other, can not only help retailers pick and pack in a more efficient and cost effective manner, but they are essentially a portable resource, allowing the retailer to move them between locations to support ecommerce fulfilment, store replenishment, back-room operations or click-and-collect order collections when the need arises.

KPMG: retail’s digital transformation – a journey with no certain destination

The term ‘digital transformation’ seemingly frustrates and motivates those operating in the retail industry in equal measure.

Some are tired of being told of the need to restructure their businesses for the digital age, while simultaneously understanding the opportunities that exist if they can implement the right systems to serve their customers better. There’s also a feeling of distress that other businesses are forging ahead with transformative plans – even if that is not the case.

Perhaps the fear comes from the fact that retailers know they must transform many of their operations to be fit for purpose in a world where customers demand speed, accuracy and exemplary customer service, but are not actually clear what the end result looks like.

Retail Connections caught up with Paul Martin, UK Head of Retail at professional services organisation KPMG, who acknowledged that the industry is currently navigating its way through a challenging period.

“Nearly everyone is on the digital transformation journey, but ‘journey’ is the important word,” he explained. “Sadly, it’s a journey with no certain destination at this point in time. It’s about continuously evolving milestones.”

He added: “A lot of organisations have significant legacy issues to deal with, such as tech infrastructure, supply chain, warehousing, networks and real estate – at the moment it’s all about placing your bets and working out where you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck.”

The need to be product- and customer-centric

It’s common knowledge that the fundamentals of retail have changed thanks to the growth of online shopping, and consumer spend slowing or being redirected towards leisure activities and other entertainment activities. Streaming services such as Netflix are taking a sizeable proportion of the spend that used to be absorbed by UK high streets and shopping malls.

In response, retailers are looking towards different technologies to enable their modern-day operations. There’s a drive towards software that provides a single view of stock, customer information and orders, as well as other tools that create more personal relationships with shoppers.

“As an organisation you need to have the customer at the heart of decision making,” Martin noted.

“It really starts with the cultural process. Many organisations are still grappling with the transformation from a product-centric business to a product- and customer-centric business. Historically, you could have really great products, you’d open the doors of your shop and customers would arrive; but things don’t work in that way anymore.”

He added: “You need to have great products, but you need to know who your customers are, and how you are going to activate them so they spend their money with you. From a tech perspective, some companies are doing a better job than others.”

Even the pureplays need back-end investment

KPMG works alongside the British Retail Consortium to compile monthly UK retail sales growth figures, both offline and online. After a dip in online growth in May, web sales returned to double-digit growth in June – but this is all underlined by quite flat retail sales patterns overall.

Martin recently warned that retailers need to invest in the means to personalise their communications with customers to help boost sales conversions, but he also acknowledged that back-end infrastructure needs to be given more attention.

“Many organisations have been looking at the front end over the last few years, but if you start thinking about HR, finance and procurement, a lot of these systems have received limited love and support,” he argued.

“Even the newer pureplay businesses have focused on the front-end a lot, be it their websites or personalisation engines, but the back office is still really suffering.”

Martin chairs a Retail Think Tank, made up of analysts and leading figures in the industry. Its latest findings indicate that sales growth has been particularly sluggish for the last three quarters, at a level not seen since 2012.

Various cost pressures, including the value of sterling against the euro and the US dollar, are contributing to this difficult period for the industry. Impacts on the bottom line include the April introduction of increased National Living Wage requirements, the Apprenticeship Levy and business rate re-evaluation.

There’s certainly a lot for the sector to contend with, as it continues its journey to modernise for the digital era. Martin’s advice to retailers is to get to know their customers as quickly as possible, as it can help restore some control in a time of macro- and micro-economic pressure.

“Start with governance and processes – do you actually measure customer satisfaction, and do you actually understand your customer? If you don’t, there’ll be a financial impact on your organisation.”

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