Written by: Leigh Bryant
The retail landscape has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Traditional brick & mortar shopping has been facing decline across sectors as online shopping has made inroads into consumer purchasing habits and as a result, consumer expectations have shifted.
But there’s a reason even Amazon has opened up brick & mortar locations of its own. As convenient as the online experience can be, there are elements of the in-store exchange that cannot be replicated or replaced.
“People like to shop, they like to browse, they enjoy the experience. Convenience absolutely matters, but all the existing evidence also suggests that experience does too,” says economist Adam Ozimek in this piece for Forbes.
In the end, most consumers will find themselves drawn to some combination of online and offline to meet their needs.
Working with some of the world’s leading brands over the last decade, we’ve observed nearly every facet of both the online and in-store experiences. And over the last few years we’ve observed an interesting dynamic: as tablets and smartphones cement their status with consumers, savvy businesses are harnessing the technology and incorporating hand-held units into the in-store experience. And it’s paying dividends.
In-store and online?
More and more retailers are turning to in-store digital interfaces as part of a complete customer experience. From free-standing kiosk displays that allow customers to interact with a full selection of merchandise to customer service representatives armed with smartphones that allow them to guide and track a customer from initial inquiry through to purchase, digital experiences offer a host of opportunities for greater in-store engagement.
Alan Whitfield, Vice President, Director of Stores for Harry Rosen, spoke about the shift in focus to a more digital in-store shopping experience and what it means not only for the venerated Canadian luxury menswear store, but for in-person retail more generally.
“The potential uses are vast,” he notes. “Hand-held screens allow us to engage with the client in new ways through expanded options.”
Something as simple as checking the back for sizes, which normally takes several minutes, can be done in seconds with a smartphone in hand. Customers get a better experience and advisors are able to provide better service and maintain a better rapport with clientele in the moment.
“A device in hand allows you to — in the moment — showcase products that might not be on display or in stock, allows you to check if the product is available in the desired size… so many different ways it can impact the selection for guests,” says Whitfield. “Selection is the big advantage.”
But it’s not the only advantage. Far from it, in fact.
The changing (inter)face of retail
Companies like NewStore, a Myplanet partner, are ushering in a new era of seamless customer interaction with hand-held devices (smartphones in particular) at the heart of the experience.
Alexander Ringsdorff, Vice President of Corporate Development at NewStore, was quick to highlight some of the other advantages smartphones and tablets offer. And one of the biggest advantages he sees is an integrated, omnichannel approach to operations.
“Often NewStore is at the heart of the ecosystem,” he says. “[Bringing in smart devices] establishes a platform to introduce new services and roll them out to the company at a speed and with an ease that previously didn’t exist.” For retailers, this could signal the start of a monumental shift in the overall management of their operations.
“For example, staff management, workforce management, appointment booking, deeper client outreach — brands can end up having three, four, or maybe more things running in parallel on one smart device, which really enhances the experience,” adds Ringsdorff.
“[T]he customer needs to be at the core, but store associates are your secret weapons. Use them.” Stephan Schambach, CEO & Founder, NewStore
This kind of all-in-one platform means customers get more immediate results with less fuss, and staff get a single system that enables management of all their software from one device. That’s a huge boon for operations management, and for the adoption of new systems — a hurdle that can be hard to clear whenever new technology is introduced to a workplace environment.
The all-in-one advantage
“Associates prefer to work with devices that have better usability, that offer more simplicity,” says Ringsdorff.
Old point of sale systems can be clunky, confusing, and cumbersome to learn. And like many legacy systems we’ve encountered working with Fortune 500 companies, they are often built for a specific, singular purpose and user experience, therefore, is an afterthought at best.
As Ringsdorff notes, “The best options in the market at the moment happen to be the consumer devices we already use, like iPhones. In our experience, adoption with those is very good. Associates obviously enjoy working with an iPhone over a traditional, more cumbersome point of sale terminal.”
“[T]hink about it this way. Your store teams are made up of consumers, who very closely resemble your customers. Smartphones, and the apps and tools on them, are likely their second nature. Why wouldn’t you arm your employees with technology they’re savvy at?” Stephan Schambach, CEO & Founder, NewStore
Whitfield agrees with Ringsdorff’s assessment, having started to deploy devices in some of their retail locations. “We’ve found it’s a continuation of the personalized journey our reps can offer. They can use the screens to connect with a customer in store and it can automatically push things forward — everything from recommendations to alteration scheduling.”
An omnichannel ecosystem that embraces digital interactions as part of the in-store experience, can help create a seamless, value-add connection for customers and businesses alike.
Having the two systems — in-store and online — fully integrated ensures you don’t lose customers at an unfamiliar point in the journey. “Feedback has been positive,” adds Whitfield. “Customers love having the ability to work with an advisor who can navigate [our website] efficiently and offer advice, support, and direction.”
Of course, as with any new technology, there are barriers to overcome.
Both Ringsdorff and Whitfield see big opportunities on the horizon for smart screen devices in retail. But they also know that rolling out big changes to the in-person experience requires a careful plan for execution.
First off, if it isn’t done well, it won’t succeed. Nothing kills a new initiative faster than a structure that can’t support the new technology properly.
“I would recommend the obvious things: Start slow, test and evaluate,” says Whitfield. “But I would also emphasize how important it is to get the basics right. Be sure you have strong wifi in your stores and make sure the interface is seamless. Waiting for a page to load is a chance to ruin the credibility.”
For Ringsdorff, finding the solution that makes the most sense for adoption is pivotal. And in his experience, that tends to mean smartphones over tablets or other larger screens.
“The only argument we sometimes hear is the larger screen might be better for showing products, but there is no evidence for this,” says Ringsdorff.
Whitfield echoes this, identifying large screen in-store displays as one of the more impactful examples of digital in the brick and mortar environment.
However, as Ringsdorff notes, “When you look at media consumption — Instagram and so on — it’s primarily done on smartphones.” As he points out, people are used to consuming pictures, data, videos, and pretty much everything else on the phone.
Another issue we’ve already touched on is adoption. But again, with the right planning, this too can be surprisingly easy to manage.
Consider the audience and what they’ll gravitate towards. Because of their familiarity with the devices associates are more likely to adopt smartphones than tablets when the new format is being introduced. And the practicality of the (somewhat) smaller device keeps one hand free for assisting clientele — helping to carry items to a change room, pulling options from racks and so on. Familiarity and practicality are both key factors in the adoption of new technology.
“What we have seen is quickly rolling out is not a problem. Feedback from associates has been along the lines of ‘Oh, this is easy. This is an app, I know apps.’” says Ringsdorff.
Ease and simplicity have made online buying a desirable option for many shoppers. But there is still a huge space for in-person interactions, and that space is improved by joining it with the digital experiences consumers have grown accustomed to.
Greater personalization, more direct and authentic service, and fewer barriers to purchasing will all come with the integration of hand-held devices and digital screens to the in-store shopping experience.
“It’s opening doors to sales that weren’t possible before,” says Whitfield. “The combination of the personal touch offered by an in-store rep and the advantages the technology offers is a great match.”
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Interested in the work we’re doing with NewStore or how we can help bring smarter interfaces to your workplace? Contact us here to speak with one of our specialists.