Is Technology Outpacing Retailer's Willingness to Invest?

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The NRF's Big Show last week served as retail's playground for cutting-edge technology. From robot associates to wearable computers, technology will be a driving force in how retailers will deliver the customer experience.

The NRF's Big Show last week served as retail's playground for cutting-edge technology. From robot associates to wearable computers, technology will serve as a driving force in how retailers will deliver the customer experience.

I enjoyed seeing these technologies in action, but wondered if technology vendors are outpacing retailers' level of readiness? A general consensus pointed to despite technology's rapid pace of innovation, retailers have yet to significantly change their experience. Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express Company, addressed the audience by saying that businesses should be prepared to overhaul their strategies to adapt to changes in the industry.

Lori Mitchell-Keller, global manager for Consumer Industries for SAP, told me that the ability to be agile and change direction is critical. She refers to retailers' transformation journeys as icebergs that keep adding on things. "If you go below the water line, it's ugly," she said. "There's a general sense that retailers are dipping their toes in the water but I'd like to see them take a step back from their business processes and technologies and look at the situation from the point of, 'if I had all the capabilities available would I do business the same as I do today?' [Retailers] need to get onto the technology bandwagon, but we also hope they think about the right business model."

While that holds true, so does the need for retailers to invest in training for their employees. The negative effects of technology implementation without proper employee training cause insurmountable problems--both with employee engagement and unattainable customer strategies.

True Religion demonstrated its clienteling applications by Aptos on the Apple Watch so store associates can engage with customers from their wrists. The application allows the associate to pull up relevant customer data and preferences immediately. But if associates are inept at using the watch or aren't incentivized to engage with customers through it, then the approach will prove futile.

Aldo has deployed Kinetic Café's multi-touch integrated platform in some test stores to enable customers to engage with associates in real time through their watches, mobile devices, or tablets mounted throughout the stores. This will only work as well as the associates trained to respond in real time and to actively use in-store devices that will alert them of customers' inquiries about inventory and ordering.

Some vendors are actually helping their retail clients identify the associates that need training. Profitect, for instance, provides prescriptive analytics through a combination of behavioral analysis, transactional data, and machine algorithms to help retailers take the right actions, from ordering inventory to planning and buying. CEO Guy Yehiav told me they also use this approach to identify associates in companies like Sally Beauty Supply that need training.

Wherever retailers' path may lead them this year in exploring new technologies, please keep in mind that both strategy and training are essential to technology's success. Don't make the mistake of creating a one-size-fits-all training program. Also immerse employees in simulated learning, teach the appropriate skills, and reinforce those skills throughout the year. Finally, constantly measure your progress.

Where do you plan to make your technology investments in the coming year?

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION