Posted by: Geoffrey Barraclough  |   Comments  No Response

We ran a focus group with Operations and IT folk from some of our most forward thinking customers - from New Look, Halfords, Pets at Home, Mothercare and Aurora Fashions - to check what retailers were sensing and to test some ideas about how technology could help. Here are our findings…

Top class specialty retailing is all getting the right information to customers and staff so the retailer makes a profit and the shopper leaves satisfied to return again. John Lewis is the often quoted benchmark.

With the proliferation of cool and innovative applications that give customers more product information, ratings, reviews and opinions than ever before, this paradigm may be in danger. After all, what’s the point of a store in which the customers are better informed than the staff?

We all agreed that a key purpose of shops is to assist people who want advice or (at the very least) are looking for someone to edit their choice. Good service is not just about being polite, it needs to include product knowledge and the ability to empathise with customers and match products to their needs. Many shoppers are feeling overloaded with the huge range of options available online and the enormous range of opinions diffused through social media.

Baseline training is important.

“Do you teach your staff qualifying or summarising skills?” but also ensuring that each team member is able to deal with any question.

“How do you get the knowledge out the heads of the experts and available to all staff”

Better training would also remove the need for clumsy scripts (how annoying is it to be always asked if we want polish every time we buy shoes) and the kind of robotised prompting that disempowers staff and annoys customers.

But even the best trained staff are going to struggle if they don’t have access to product information unless provided with tools at least as good as the customers have. This is not just about access to all the data the retailer has. It needs to include material from suppliers, expert bloggers and competitors too. This is going to prove a challenge to some more conventional retailers believe that the more technology the staff have, the less time they’ll spend doing something useful.

Multichannel retailing is changing.

Multichannel used to be about bringing the best of the store onto the web, now it’s the other way around. This means that technology - kiosks, in-store ordering, browsers on the tills, tablet devices, applications on customers smart phones - will all play a role. Much depends on the individual retailer’s situation.

A slick process, comprehensive selection and a choice of delivery options the minimum retailers should be offering for in-store customer ordering in 2010. Of course, staff will now need to be expert on the complete range of products available not just those stocked by their outlet.

Kiosks are widely viewed as a failure.

We heard anecdotal evidence of successes where store staff and shoppers used kiosks  together (co-browsing) but the experience of them as stand-alone devices was not a happy one. And co-browsing would be better done with a tablet-like device.

The iPad sounds fantastic but is way, way too expensive.

“PoS just seems to be getting dearer. First it was connected to a £20 keyboard, then a £200 touchscreen, now we’re talking about a £600 multi-touch device”.

“What I want is a £200 10 inch multi-touch screen. If I could buy four for the price of a till, we’ve got a deal.”

The Key Performance Indicator impacted of using these kind of devices for assisted service would be conversion rate - the proportion of people entering a store that go on to make a purchase. This is the key effectiveness measure of the way a store is run. Surprisingly, only a few retailers measure this although almost all obsess about online conversions.

Everyone agreed that store-staff need to be credited with all sales generated, no matter where the order ends up, otherwise no in-store initiative will succeed, however exciting it is.

Finally, we talked about the way store applications and customer applications are converging and that this was likely to “bringthe first discontinuity since EPoS was introduced 20 years ago.” Retail systems and customer systems have been developed independently in the past but now there needs to be a fundamental change.

Long term, it’s likely that most retailers will use a version of their store systems on assisted service devices “retailers don’t have large capital budgets so if we can merge the front and back offices into one device, then it makes sense” but most want to keep complicated product information requests and co-browsing away from the till. They want to keep this for payments but would like iPhone-style usability.

We found the session extremely useful and will use the findings to guide our product development over the next 12 months or so. We’re already working with some customers on mobilising in-store applications on tablet devices.

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