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Smooth operators

How technology can make a good thing better for tech-savvy shoppers.

Mark Thomson is Retail Industry Director EMEA at Zebra Technologies

In today’s consumer landscape, customers can shop from anywhere at any time. Digitalisation has whet the appetite for an impeccable customer journey, and online experience continues to inform tastes for in-store interactions.

Furthermore, the high street seems to be in greater and ever-increasing peril. In a Game of Thrones-esq narrative, retail giants are merging or dramatically falling into administration, online behemoths are absorbing everything in their path and independent retailers are cropping up all over, lapping up market share where they can.

These changing demands and environments are pushing retailers to better harness smart technology to make shopping more personal, engaging and relationship-driven. There has never been a more important time for retailers of all sizes to pause and take stock of the now and the future of technology and retail.

Enhancing shopper experience

Frictionless shopping means eliminating anything that doesn’t add value and negatively impacts the shopping experience. Common complaints of in-store friction include queuing to pay, delayed or no access to stock information and printing receipts or accessing store cards. Essentially, anything that makes the in-store experience – which is already more of an investment of time than online – a laborious one.

These pain points, although subjective, are barriers to making in-store shopping more pleasurable for customers and more profitable for retailers. Worryingly, it is not just shoppers that are aware of these issues. Our Global Shopper Study, which surveyed retail associates, decision-makers and shoppers, shows 42% of store associates had little time to help shoppers because of the pressure to get other tasks completed. Another 28% claim that it’s difficult to get information to help shoppers.

However, two-thirds (66%) of retail store associates surveyed believe that if they are equipped with tablets, they could provide better customer service and improve the shopping experience. Retailers must look to invest in technology that addresses each of the issues and puts shoppers firmly at the heart of the experience.

Positive friction

The line between a positive or negative shopping experience is a thin one. Too much friction and the experience can be negative. Too little friction or the elimination of it and there is risk of diminishing the shopping experience altogether. After all, the beauty of shopping in-store is experiential and sensory: the smell of the food and human interaction. Enter Positive Friction.

Positive friction is about ensuring that the right interactions are made at the right time and place to provide a personalised experience. For example, a coupon for a customer’s favorite chocolate while they’re nearby or a deal on champagne when it’s almost their birthday. Similarly, quick access to stock information or answers to queries via a device or personnel exactly when it’s needed are great benefits. This insight aligns with findings from the Global Shopper Survey which found 51% of shoppers felt better connected with their smartphones than store associates.

This doesn’t mean store associates are not needed – they just need to be better equipped. As the Global Shopper Study unearthed: with devices in hand, both retail decision makers (83%) and retail associates (74%) believe that technologically-equipped sales associates will provide better service.

At the heart of solving this challenge is providing omnichannel retail. Put simply, omnichannel is defined as an approach to sales that aligns in-store, online and digital logistics and platforms. This, in turn, provides consumers and businesses with a fully integrated experience.

Omnichannel has long topped the list of things to implement to keep up among the big players in retail; yet it is still to be adopted by some retailers. Our Future of Fulfilment study revealed only 53% of retailers believe that they are operating at an omnichannel level. This must change as customers want a more personalised experience. With the ever-evolving technology landscape, one-size-fits-all planning strategies must be thrown out and replaced with an agile, flexible approach.

The technology driving omnichannel

One key technology here is the Internet of Things (IoT). Retailers are investing in IoT technologies to drive omnichannel. They are embracing IoT platforms wholeheartedly with a view to transform real-time, visibility-driven data throughout the supply chain into actionable insights.

IoT has the power to transform how we shop. In today’s omnichannel world, product availability is critical, and many retailers have in-store inventory visibility challenges. Technological advancements in areas such as machine vision, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and data analytics – underpinned by IoT – are enabling more advanced operational visibility by allowing retail inventory to be “seen” and connected by both staff and consumers alike.

At the heart of IoT lies the importance of mobile devices. These are becoming vital to consumer interaction, as companies can personalise the way they do business. Enterprises can build profiles around how their customers have done business with them in the past – profiles that provide insights into their ongoing customer relationships.

In retail, IoT can bring this personalised, customer mobile experience to life in omnichannel operations. Based on customer activity, retailers can find out when their customers enter a store if they opt-in online, connect them to staff best suited to assist, locate them in the actual store, or send notifications when they arrive to pick up a product ordered online as well as among many other useful applications.

It’s all interconnected: shoppers may start out by contacting the retailer via phone and then end up in the store or communicating via chat, e-mail or social media. In summary, omnichannel brings all these lines of communication together for a more seamless customer experience, ultimately driving sales.

The shift to IoT technologies is imperative to keep up with the shopping habits and expectations of consumers reshaped by the tech revolution that’s still unfurling. Digital disruption — most profoundly, online shopping and smartphones — has birthed ever-connected, savvy shoppers who have the globe’s grandest mall at their fingertips.

The important role of RFID

In addition to IoT technology, RFID plays a key role in omnichannel retail. After being implemented by retailers in fits and starts since the dawn of the millennium, RFID’s time has come. In what has been called the next generation of the barcode that was long cost-prohibitive, RFID platforms have dropped in price, achieved wider global standardization and as result, retail adoption has soared.

But the bigger impetus for retail implementation is the RFID’s potential return on investment. As an industry, retail inventory accuracy is around 65%. By contrast, RFID platforms can boost inventory accuracy to 95%, while out-of-stocks can be reduced by 60-80% with item-level RFID tagging.

Omnichannel delivery can be expensive. If inventory data is not accurate, orders may be filled hundreds of miles away, when they could be processed locally. Therefore, it is savvy to know the closest source of ordered goods. RFID enables retailers to slash the inventory buffer they typically use to ensure they really have items available for sale.

RFID can also assist retailers with another important activity – returns. This technology drives returns processing, including classifying inventory and shipping it to the proper warehouse or store. RFID can also help avoid service counters being filled with unsold inventory that is drastically marked down or donated at seasons’ end.

The outlook for retailers

There is a great deal on the horizon for retailers, including AI which will continue to force the evolution of the retail experience for retailers, associates and shoppers alike. But there is also a huge amount of opportunity and optimism.

Yes, retailers need to build a more fluid, flexible strategy. And yes, there will be more disruption for the traditional stores. But while there may be fewer shops, the in-store retail experience is far from dead. Indeed, it just means that the role of the store is changing. There are numerous examples of innovation happening, promising reinvention and reinvestment to create a positive shopping experience.

There are plenty of success stories to be found – and more still to be made. So, while the retail sector needs to redress the balance now, the state of flux will not last forever. In the meantime, there are very clever technologies out there to help navigate and flex through this extraordinary time.

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