Earlier this month, our US team were excited to attend NRF’s Big Show in New York. There were so many innovative ideas being shared by industry experts from all parts of the retail sector, and it's given us high hopes for 2019. After all, we know that retail isn't dead - boring retail is!
This year if felt like there was a shift from talking about what could be done with technology to what is already being done. According to a survey compiled by NRF and IBM, 51% of retailers already use AI for customer intelligence, 48% for demand forecasting, and 38% for pricing and promotion. These figures are expected to increase rapidly over the next couple of years.
AI, in all its many forms, continued to be a hot topic. Machine learning in particular raises exciting possibilities - for example, sensors in supermarket refrigerators could alert store teams when stock is running low.
One of the more controversial technologies showcased was the facial recognition software from C2RO, who claim that this is ‘the most efficient way to recognise your customers in person’. This kind of information can be harnessed to send customers opted in to the system targeted alerts, offers, and personalised messages, as well as tracking customers’ journeys through the store.
Of course, questions must be raised about the ethics of collecting this kind of personal information, especially given the current concern around online data collection and privacy. The company’s CEO, Riccardo Badalone, insists that it is a fully secure, “closed access” system - but even so, only time will tell whether cautious consumers will learn to trust it.
We were even treated to futuristic robotics this year with the introduction of Marty, the 6’3” robot roaming the aisles of the Giant Food Stores grocery chain. The bot, whose job is to identify spillages and hazards on the shop floor, sports a pair of googly eyes, endearing him to customers. Marty’s future functions might include more advanced applications such as scanning shelves to determine which items are out of stock, which would be another big time saver for the stores.
But it could be that the most useful bit of tech isn’t a loveable robot, but something that all stores already have: surveillance cameras. This essential security tool costs retailers a lot of money, yet the majority of what these cameras record goes unused. But if retailers actually used this data to examine customer behaviour within the store - where they go, what they do, if/how long they wait for assistance - they could gain a greater insight into what actually needs to be improved and if there are any opportunities they need to make the most of. And the best part is, there’s no extra cost required!
2. It’s all about data, data, and more data
Instead of just revelling in whatever flashy new gadget retailers can try, it’s important to remember that the goal of all this advancement is ultimately to improve in-store operations. And based on the discussions being had at NRF this year, the way forward is data.
As already mentioned, consumer trust is low right now when it comes to personal information. But even so, customer data is already an indispensable element of online retail. You know how you look at a product once online and then see adverts for it everywhere for weeks afterwards until you eventually buy it? Yep, that’s the power of data.
Now it’s time for brick-and-mortar retailers to follow suit. It’s no secret that personalisation is what shoppers are looking for these days, and the only way to provide that is to collect information about each individual and use it to cater to their specific needs.
This does require some work, though. As Karen Hinson, Lead Analyst at Chick-Fil-A, noted: ‘In the real world, one business often has more or superior information than another. Whenever that happens, the scales are tipped in their favour. Companies that can figure out how to leverage data to make better, faster decisions have a major advantage in the marketplace.’ It’s not a given that retailers have access to all the same data, so making the effort to collect this information could be the difference between success and failure in the near future.
In short, customer intelligence is the only way to create a truly personalised, seamless end-to-end customer experience, and failing to realise that will set technophobe retailers back significantly.
3. It’s time to make employee engagement a priority
Despite all this talk of technology making shopping easier than ever, that absolutely does not mean that the sales associate is being phased out. Self-service checkouts and aisle-cleaning robots are all well and good, but smart retailers know that what makes brick-and-mortar retail special is the interaction customers have with friendly, well-informed store teams. Technology will be used to aid store teams and give them more time to spend time with customers, not to get rid of them completely!
However, if the impression customers have of a store is so dependent on their experience with sales associates, why do retailers not pay enough attention to keeping their employees happy?
Store team engagement is already difficult enough, with much of your staff likely made up of students working part-time and high employee turnover as a result. But if retailers do nothing to empower their teams and keep them motivated to do their jobs, customer experience will inevitably suffer. I’m sure we can all think of a time when our shopping trip has been ruined by a rude or unhelpful sales associate!
The key to remedying this is training. And not just for new employees - we’re talking continuous, regular training for all team members, to keep things ticking over and to remind sales associates why their job is so important. After all, brick-and-mortar would be nothing without them!
The best way to empower store teams through training is with gamified learning. By splitting training into fun, bitesize chunks, allowing them to track their progress, and rewarding high performers, training becomes less of a chore and more of an enjoyable activity to engage in alongside colleagues.
One thing was clear at NRF 2019: retail is in a period of intense change and experimentation, and we’re all figuring out where the industry will go next. Not all the innovative ideas at this year’s conference will become commonplace in stores, but the important thing is that retailers do not stagnate - that’s how stores end up closing!
Missed us at NRF this year? Get in touch to find out more about how YOOBIC helps retailers achieve retail excellence.
Cover photo: Jake and Virginia from our US team at the conference