Retail is here to stay. Experience Needs Imagination

A social media update announcing the coming retail apocalypse is now a routine occurrence. News articles about this issue are relatively common as well. The impression created is that new players hungrier for success are stomping all over brick and mortar. At the same, these new companies are not just online but are also opening stores and designing unique data-driven experiences. 

If done thoughtfully, automated services and bots can be a nice convenience. People want to have a more straightforward experience. Besides, there is enough to show that people like to socialise. We crave company and connections. For a long time, it was convenient to go to malls and traditional stores. These places provided the convenience of everything under one roof. You could also spend time with family, friends and celebrate occasions. Technology has upended this equation a bit. It is somewhat more convenient to order or manage requirements via websites, voice assistants, apps and bot. The robot hotel did end up creating vast amounts of work for the few humans that were part of the project. 

Retailers, however, need to rethink the offer and experience. Traditional thinking about space optimisation needs to be reinvigorated, and customer journeys need to redesign. I am very optimistic about the changes taking place. New retail requires fresh imagination, and it can be exciting to imagine and implement this brave new future.  Store formats and services will go through a transformation primarily driven by the question, what can the store do more? A new connected customer experience that builds on a data-rich environment but brings the core values of human empathy in service delivery. 

No matter where this retail leapfrog takes us, some fundamental principles need to be kept in mind. 

Focus on first-time customers: 

India is growing fast and not a saturated market like many others. There is an opportunity in the smaller retail formats as well as larger ones. Rather than look over the shoulder and worry about competition, there is an opportunity to redesign the experience for all. Maybe there is something to be learnt from another sector like software companies. They have a term called on-boarding. Rather than sending promotional or sales offers, how can we think about re-designing the experience of our first-time customers? Many of whom may be experiencing the category in a completely different way. 

Integrated customer experiences: 

Ok, let’s get the omnichannel word out of the way then. It seems to be the panacea for all the ills of modern retail. Much of the writing related to omnichannel is confusing. What about the leadership in retail then? Are they clear about the benefits of omnichannel?  Not all organisations are ready to implement it for varying reasons. It is, however, looking at the business model from a technology point of view and it seems to lose track of the actual needs of the customer. 

Companies have viewed the social channel as a way to promote and for customers as a way to highlight service gaps. The service equation needs redefinition.  Emphasis on process enhancements could be brought about if the stores, social channels, apps could offer relevant services that matter to the customer. The key focus needs to be on the customer journey and pertinent aspects across touchpoints. How can integration of search, purchase and service across these multifaceted brand outposts drive value and convenience for the customer? 

Data defines the experience:

Adding technology does not mean a business is making adequate use of the data. All too often data exists in a silo;  achieving whatever the company may be trying to track. Unlike the traditional retail businesses, the online retailer is probably generating far more data and is also using it more effectively. Moreover, I think it is the pace of data generation and subsequent utilisation that needs attention. Traditional dashboards do not quite cut it. Is it just better algorithms or a better culture of data utilisation? Could be both?

We have got to look beyond basic transactional analytics. Gone are the days when CRM meant sending emails and old style loyalty programme statements. CRM also does not mean third-party sourcing of data via dubious service providers to enhance existing transactional data.  Due to concerns about data protection, privacy laws and even security issues, organisations need to be mindful of not being blindsided by weak data governance. 

The opportunity offered today is to connect the data that would otherwise exist in silos. Making it count means offering customers something that is timely, relevant and convenient. What can be done to create a perpetual and actionable insights platform and not just social media command centres of the not so distant past? 

Moreover, let’s not lose track of the retail team 

Working in retail can be very demanding with pressure to offer excellent service even going beyond the call of duty. However, with almost gig economy like business models where a person belongs to a staffing service provider how motivated can this person be to go above and beyond. Then there is the distance between the employee and the leadership of the retail brand, going through the matrix organisation and so on. It can be tough! Companies have sought to address these existential threats by increasing automation to reduce attrition and more. 

So this surprises me. Will automation improve convenience or will it enhance the experience that you remember? So the charter for the new retail has to be about how people can help create moments that leave lasting impressions. There is then a need to think about the customer journey, and it’s touchpoints and the employee journey concurrently. It is not enough to offer standard learning modules. Learning then has to be based on insights we have on customer intents. Ideas that were designed earlier to improve offer or optimise the website, need to be brought into  learning for improvement. Not on a post facto basis but at a pace benefiting the promise the brand makes to a customer. Connected customers in a new connected store, need employee connection in  detail as well. Microlearning, augmented learning experiences, constant skill enhancement has to be a consistent part of the journey. 

Data is going to play a critical role in building the employee experience. Not just the basic data of who sold more and if they have been trained in the necessary modules. Instead, analysing team performance much as we see in sports. Where every single ball bowled or played, free kick taken or goal scoring movements are mapped and discussed. Learning and Development needs to be a mentor with multiple feedback systems to help improve the performance of each. We need to think of people as assets, not some number on excel sheet to be “˜optimised’ or automated away.

People will continue to form the basis of a high-performance retail experience.





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