Maximizing the Impact of Technology in Retail
Taking a look at which digital touchpoints have the greatest impact on retail experiences for both customers and employees.
The clothing retail space is complex. Supply chains and touchpoints weave together through disparate physical and digital systems and while sophisticated customer-facing apps deliver convenience to consumers, employees need to have the right digital touchpoints to support their work in bringing consumers the products they want as well.
Monitoring industry trends, conducting primary research into changing demographics, and understanding the evolving tech landscape are all important aspects of creating the best possible experience for users. But an equally important part of helping our clients meet their goals is understanding what’s happening right now.
We examined the digital touchpoints in the retail shopping journey of 4 major fashion retailers, looking at the interaction points that had the greatest potential to impact both customer and employee experience. Our research surfaced 4 key areas for retailers to home in on to drive meaningful change for consumers: gating, continuity of experience, hurdles & accelerators, and technology implementation.
Gating, i.e. requiring customers to sign-in to a profile before purchasing, is a big category to examine. On the one hand, it’s smart marketing: by registering online customers first, retailers get valuable information for building campaigns and personalized plans that could lead to future sales. But while it’s useful for long-term engagement, gating can also come at the cost of sales. Following through on a series of steps just to be able to buy an item can be too much of a bother for many customers, leading to abandoned carts.
The decision to gate or not to gate really boils down to short- vs long-term gains. Conversions generally improve without gating, but it’s harder to build the lasting relationships retailers rely on to sustain business over the long haul. What’s a retailer to do?
Progressive gating (also called progressive profiling) gives users the opportunity to buy without gating — ensuring easy sales with fewer abandoned carts — while still encouraging sign-up and registration in stages that can lead to more meaningful, lasting sales relationships. In our research, only one retailer offered this type of no-frills, easy checkout flow for guests with additional options built in to encourage users to create a more meaningful user profile.
One reason only one retailer was executing at this level may be because it can be more technically complex to implement. The payoff, however, can be significant for both customers and retailers which is why for most major retailers, we’d recommend this path. But there is another factor that may be keeping retailers from implementing progressive gating on their sites.
Our research identified a distinct difference between transactionally-focused retailers (i.e. focused on making the current sale) and more client-oriented retailers (i.e. concerned with building a lasting connection with the customer). Typically, staff are trained to either maximize efficiency or maximize connectivity. This means the choice to gate — whether or not to expedite sales or grow a lasting relationship with a customer — also likely falls in line with the general ethos of the company. But with progressive gating, retailers can begin to bridge the gaps between the two styles, especially as they relate to employees.
How do employee needs and practices fit into the conversation around gating? And how does gating fit in with other digital touchpoints they encounter?
More and more in-store sales associates are using clienteling software to build out robust customer profiles. It’s a digital update to a practice high-end retailers in particular have always engaged in — building a rapport, getting to know customer likes and dislikes, establishing trust, and leveraging that relationship for mutual benefit — and it overlaps quite a bit with what gating can accomplish.
Online and in-store can find common ground in the high-touch opportunities both gating and clienteling offer. Clienteling takes a pre-existing experience and enhances it with digital support, while gating opens up new opportunities for connecting with customers retailers may not have had access to in that way before. And when the two are connected, real dividends show. Data-driven insights can empower staff, helping them connect consumer preferences with product information to support their recommendations here and now while creating more enjoyable and tailored experiences for customers that encourage sales over the long haul.
Another key area we examined is continuity across experiences. Continuity of experience covers everything from consumer-facing concerns, such as visually matching the in-store experience to the online experience through photography and branding efforts, to employee-oriented concerns like dissemination of product information in a centralized, universally accessible way.
But more than that, it’s about the crossover between the two: if inventory tracking doesn’t connect across departments and among warehouse, online, and in-store systems, then employees can’t provide customers the service they expect and customers won’t trust the retailer will have what they are seeking. In essence, when continuity breaks down, everyone loses out.
One of the biggest issues we found employees of both in-store and online-only retailers were facing is a disconnect between what they have access to and what’s actually happening. Whether it’s lack of oversight into national inventory numbers or being unable to access a customer’s profile to be able to offer meaningful assistance, the lack of continuity posed real challenges to their ability to do their jobs effectively.
In an increasingly digital market, this is especially problematic because customer expectations have shifted. Consumers know what’s possible, and when experiences don’t measure up to expectations, they have plenty of channels for voicing their frustrations.
But alongside those elevated risks have come high rewards: the opportunities for improved customer experience have expanded seemingly exponentially. So long as the new technology is given platform-level consideration (i.e. is developed to connect in-store employees, head office staff, and warehouse management teams), the experiences customers have both online and in-store can be significantly improved.
Take communication about the latest pricing and promotions, for example. If a price is quoted online but a different price appears in store, customers will feel confused and ripped off. What’s worse, they’ll lose the trust they have in the brand. But if all the systems are working together, if what they see online looks, feels, and most importantly conveys the same information as what they find in-store, customers come away feeling connected to the retailer.
That’s a specific (albeit very important) example, but it’s far from the only way continuity can impact a retailer’s image and ability to maintain customer confidence. And that’s what makes this area so important for retailers to pay attention to: continuity of experience has a ripple effect on all other parts of the experience for both customers and employees.
Hurdles & Accelerators
The third key area we’ll look at, hurdles and accelerators, is among the many categories impacted by continuity of experience. But it has import all on its own, as well.
Take a standard process — like making a return — which can be a hurdle or an accelerator, depending on how the retailer handles it. With the right mix of self-service and personalized customer care, even an item being returned to the retailer can be an accelerator, becoming an opportunity for increasing customer loyalty and conversions. Conversely, if customers find the process difficult or costly, the negative impression operates as a serious hurdle to future conversions.
“Our best customers have the highest returns rates, but they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers. Zappos’ modus operandi is not to give its purchasers the cheapest footwear on the block, but to give them the best service: hence, a 365-day returns policy, and free two-way shipping.” — Craig Adkins, Zappos
When customers have an issue, especially with something purchased online, are they able to take care of it themselves? Or do they have to go in store to reach a resolution? If they have to go in store for some reason, does the employee have access to relevant information that will make the experience seamless for the customer? Or are their barriers that will increase customer frustration and tie the hands of sales associates?
Once again, having a strong through-line for the experience is crucial. If inventory is reliably up-to-date and accessible via a mobile device, sales associates can check stock without ever leaving the sales floor. But when that continuity of experience breaks down and the employee has to leave the customer for a lengthy search for information, the likelihood of a conversion diminishes.
For a potent example of how dire things can be: one retailer we researched had no way for staff to access any inventory numbers and individual employees developed their own, unique work-arounds to try and provide customers with the information they needed. That means every customer was being led down a different path, some much more reliable than others. Relying on work-arounds like calling nearby locations to get up to date information is a time-waster for all involved — especially a customer eager to make a purchase — and can erode customer loyalty faster than almost anything else.
But it’s not just in-store touchpoints where we see this issue. Looking once again at gating, it’s clear that the simple act of entering personal data for an online purchase can be turned from a hurdle (long forms, too many input fields) into an accelerator (biometric authorization for ease of log-in or 2-factor authentication to show enhanced security) when we understand the customer’s circumstances and pain points and address them effectively in the design and implementation of a solution.
There are no silver bullets, but there are well-designed experiences that can enhance customer experience and ease employee burdens, all of which drive conversions.
The final key area we identified in our research is technology adoption. How current are the tools being used? How widely have they been adopted organizationally? Do they match the needs of the people using them? Technology adoption has a lot of moving pieces, and identifying which approach is the best approach is one of the biggest challenges facing retailers today.
Those same transactionally-oriented retailers we highlighted earlier are implementing tools that offer centralized information (like high-accuracy inventory system and detailed product spec sheets) to all employees. Shoring up continuity for customers and staff alike, they’re arming their teams with a more consistent understanding of product benefits and talking points and harmonizing brand presentation in the process.
Similarly, the native versus web app debate can have a significant impact on continuity. Customers get more out of a native app, but if it feels too different from the website, they lose the connectivity that lets them know they’re in safe hands with a brand. Connecting them to an experience that makes sense with their mental model is crucial to building and maintaining brand loyalty.
An effective means of searching for products is another way technology can make or break a retail experience. Whether customers are searching on a website, or employees are searching inventory in store, relevant and accurate results are crucial. Pulling up mismatched or incorrect inventory can be a big red flag for consumers, but when retailers nail that experience, it’s one of the most compelling accelerators available.
But it’s not only transaction-oriented retailers can succeed with technology. As with gating, customer-oriented retailers who deploy the right technology in a few key moments can provide a level of service that goes beyond expectations.
Taking a less centralized approach opens doors to more authentic connectivity by allowing (and even encouraging) associates to connect with customers in ways that suit them — via email, instant messaging, and social media, and all managed from their personal devices. With an easy to use web app, staff can benefit from centralized knowledge sharing around inventory of product information but use it in a way that makes it more meaningful for their clientele.
Take the search example: if a quality search is connected to a customer profile, a smart personalization engine can offer recommendations in line with what the customer or employee is looking for. Colours, sizes, similar styles — the more wholly integrated the technology is to the system, the better the results for retailers.
We envision a retail experience where customers can get what they need conveniently and efficiently; where sales are converted by seamless experiences; and where employees have the tools and technology to feel empowered as partners in the purchasing process, helping customers meet their goals. And these four key areas for digital interactivity in retail — independently, but more importantly, when improved in tandem — can help facilitate those experiences.
Interested in how we can supercharge your retail touchpoints and bring millions of moments to your digital experiences that engage your customers and empower your employees? Speak with a member of our team today to find out more.