Platform Solutions for Retail: How to Get it Right
Retail businesses are big, complicated entities with a lot of moving parts. Platform solutions are tailor-made for them.
Platform experiences are an increasingly important long-view solution for businesses to consider, especially in the retail sector. With a rapid pace of change, an ever-churning marketplace, and the steady push-pull between customer and brand and between online and in-store, retail businesses are particularly well-suited to this kind of multi-layered approach.
Platforms offer a comprehensive approach to the vast array of digital needs facing an organization, but their ability to handle so much means that there are a lot of moving parts to consider. And that means understanding where to focus your energies — especially with limited time, money, or other resources — can be difficult.
Having worked with a national retailer on a rebuild of their digital touchpoints to create a more user-friendly, more data-informed, and more interconnected solution for their customer and employee needs, we’ve identified four areas specific to the retail context to keep in mind when implementing a platform solution.
1 — Customers
“The customer is always right.” Whether or not you agree with the message, this core tenet of retail offers an important kernel of truth to apply when working on platform engagements: The customer has to be at the heart of everything.
Great design always begins with understanding the end user’s journey. But customers, specifically, are such an immediate and dynamic part of retail operations that it’s easy to assume we understand all aspects of their experience, when in reality we only have a surface grasp on it. This is especially true when it comes to their non-digital experiences.
Gaining an on-the-ground understanding of a customer’s experiences with the brand will help you envision how their pain points can be improved beyond immediate interactions. Several steps back in the journey, at a stage they may never see or directly connect to, is often where the most impactful improvements can happen. But if you don’t fully understand the circumstances as they are, you’ll never uncover those opportunities as they could be.
Customer journeys or life cycles are often understood as and represented by a line or a circle. That’s standard in just about any business, but it’s increasingly inaccurate. The reality is that journeys never look like a straight line or a single closed loop, especially in organizations delivering goods and services over a period of years.
“Journeys are flexible, changing, and now more than ever, driven by the customer: how they prefer to connect and engage, when and how they buy, and their purchase drivers. The sales and service organization of the future has to be prepared to deliver a consistent experience, with the agility to serve the customer as they prefer to be served.” — Katherine Jones, Director of Platform Strategy, Myplanet
Retailers looking to make and establish connections with their consumers need to think beyond transactions and understand that their customer’s journeys don’t begin or end in the ways we typically think. The whole purpose of platform thinking — and of bringing this long-view digital approach to a retail setting — is to help answer for a complex, years-long relationship in a meaningful, sustainable way. Getting to know the details and nuances of the customer experience from every angle is the first step.
2 — Search and Inventory
The next step is to start digging in and making improvements where it counts. And since search is the lifeblood of any commerce experience, starting there makes sense for just about every retailer on earth.
Customers and employees each use search to find specific items, to find information around availability and style options like size and colour for those items, and to discover new items. Serving up results that match what’s being searched online or in store can help guarantee sales, build trust, and encourage independent discovery that can lead to a bigger share of baskets in the long run. But if the results fall short of expectations, that experience not only frustrates both customers and employees, it can shut down opportunities for both immediate and long-term sales.
A successful search depends on speed and accuracy. Customers and employees want results quickly, but not at the cost of precision in the results, which is why inventory is such an important part of the discussion. Ultimately, search cannot succeed without accurate inventory reporting. The two operate in tandem when creating commerce experiences to ensure customers retain trust in a retailer and employees are able to effectively and efficiently do their jobs. Serving a result that says there are 5 jackets in store when there are, in fact, none is a frustration at best and a loss of sale at worst.
Search and inventory are not limited to just one portion of the retail journey, either. They’re involved in nearly every part of the retail journey. Warehousing, merchandising, customer service, and just about every experience both online and in-store depend, in some way, on accurate search and inventory information.
To get search right, you must understand the needs and pain points of your end users thoroughly — if a customer enters the store needing an item right now, the sales associate helping them needs to know the item they’re looking for is in their store right now, not that a location on the other side of the country has it. The right search functionality can surface that information quickly and easily.
First and foremost, you need to ensure you’re surfacing the right information (e.g. not all jackets, but black rain jackets specifically, if that’s what’s being searched). Once you’re certain you’ve given customers and associates the information they need, you can begin to optimize the experience to give them an experience that exceeds expectations.
For example, if a customer searches for cufflinks, they might also be interested in pocket squares and that’s something carefully calibrated search responses can anticipate and surface for them. If they’re seeking blazers, suggesting dress shirts that both coordinate with the blazer and are in their size offers the kind of highly personal, high-touch experience customers seek with ease. Product recommendations and personalized results like that just aren’t possible without an effective search and inventory structure from the get-go.
Being able to provide the best customer experience at any touchpoint is no easy feat, which is why we’ve found this is an area where a trusted partner can go a long way. Search is important and complicated enough that experts who can help define the space and tool the effort can be an essential part of getting it right. Global leaders like Algolia, whom we worked with for our most recent platform retail project, bring the tools and implementation experience necessary to help ensure your strategy for search is a success.
3 — Data
Of course, no search or inventory effort would work without a comprehensive and intelligently planned data set. If search is the lifeblood of retail, product data is the beating heart at the centre of it all, keeping the system flowing.
But product data is tricky. It’s constantly changing: new items get added, old ones get discontinued, items get bought and returned and maybe even re-bought… and that’s before even considering the complications discounts and sales add to the mix. It’s about as dynamic a data set as you could create.
The key is to focus on two areas: consistency and standardization. Consistency ensures the product data set, no matter how dynamic, is a reliable source of information for employees and customers alike. And standardizing how the data is made available ensures it can be presented across multiple interfaces with ease. Working together, these two factors ensure seamless access to information for all, at the times and places it’s needed most.
To allow for faster feature development and deployment and a solution that could scale with any user base, we recommend an event stream based technical architecture. This means new experiences can be built with more accurate inventory, product, and customer information and when looking at a platform-level digital solution, having options that are flexible for future needs is an important consideration.
In particular, bringing in machine learning and artificial intelligence advancements, such as recommendation and personalization features, won’t be possible without clear data that can be flexed as needed.
As an example, we implemented a “laydown” feature with our retail client which, in essence, allows their associates to create personalized lookbooks for their clientele. This is a great feature for growing the customer-advisor relationship, but the real opportunity is found in pulling the data from the laydown itself (brands, sizes, materials, styles, and more) and bringing it back into a recommendation engine that can learn as the customer and advisor interact over the suggestions.
To do this effectively, you need to be able to grapple with customer data the same way you do with product data. It’s a dynamic, constantly in-flux set as well. But by integrating customer data with the product data, we can create a feature that not only offers value from the outset, but continues to add value over time. Suggestions that match customer desires for specific items while meeting their needs on subjectively important factors like materials, costs, and even fit, are an incredible way to enhance the experience for customers. And that kind of enhancement isn’t possible without a stable structure for your data sets.
Making product information highly available and accessible, with greater consistency across the in-store and out-of-store experiences, is the work of clear, comprehensive data. Integrating it with comprehensive, dynamic customer data is where you’re able to build out meaningful experiences for customers and employees. If you can only do one thing, there’s a strong case to be made for getting your data in order, since almost all other improvements down the line will flow from it.
4 — Change Management
Finally, having a plan in place for how to implement and socialize change is crucial. Where it gets trickier (and infinitely more important) for retail is that retail is inherently distributed.
Even with a central office, there is also a warehouse (or several), countless brick and mortar locations that each operate as micro-communities of their own, plus a chain of vendors and suppliers that can be hard to align to new systems. And on top of all that, there is the online experience to consider — a separate call-centre and/or customer service response team that rarely operates from the central office.
To succeed, three things need to happen. The first: robust support from the top. Senior management needs to put their money where their mouth is or their teams won’t buy in. The second: support from people on the ground. In-store associates, warehouse staffers, customer service line managers and so on need to be a part of the process of deciding on the new tools and systems that will change their work. And the third thing: retailers need to engage the customer.
More than in typical enterprise overhauls, which usually impact the back of house operations but remain largely invisible to the end consumer, a platform transformation in retail will necessarily impact the customer directly. Effectively managing customer expectations, their likely pains and confusions, and ensuring they have warning, training, and easy response mechanisms for when things don’t work the way they’re expecting is a crucial component of making a digital transformation work in a retail setting.
This is challenging, of course. You can’t take all your customers and give them a 1-day training session on how to use the new checkout flow or search functions on the website. But when it’s a consideration from before the first line of code is ever written, there are ways to make it as seamless and pain-free as it can be.
Every business needs a plan, but the change management strategy in retail is likely going to be a more layered and nuanced one than in almost any other business environment.
A platform-style overhaul is a big undertaking (that’s kind of the point). Retailers looking to engage in this kind of digital transformation need to be aware of the challenges and potential pitfalls. If they consider these four elements at every stage — from choosing a partner to help develop their platform strategy through to launching it with their staff and customers — they’ll be in great shape to create a successful, future-ready suite of digital offers that will serve their employees, their customers, and their business for a long time to come.
Interested in how Myplanet can create personalized, data-informed employee and customer software for your business? Reach out to our team today.