What's "In-Store" for Customer Engagement?

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
By infusing the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar experience with the advantages of new media, businesses across industries plan to blur the lines between online and offline interactions to accommodate the ever-changing customer journey.

When today's busy consumers venture out to shop, they bring their friends and family along for the adventure. With mobile phones in hand, these shoppers carry their entire network at all times. They carry the opinion of their best friend from California and the suggestions of their old college roommate. But, beyond their immediate connections, these tech-savvy consumers hold every product spec sheet, customer review, and price tag in the palms of their hands, thereby altering the traditional in-store experience for good.

Smartphones have ushered the Internet into stores, allowing one channel to enhance the other. However, with showrooming becoming an ever-present threat to the conventional brick-and-mortar store, these physical shops must begin to integrate the technology of today in order to ensure their success tomorrow. Luckily, many stores have already begun to explore what smartphones have to offer and how these tools can enhance the in-store experience, not detract. The following trends examine how businesses are working to blur the lines between the online and offline experiences of today's hyper connected shoppers:

Making the Most Out of Mobile

From scanning items to making payments, retailers across the board recognize the power mobile possesses when it comes to engaging and retaining the connected consumer. As many brick-and-mortar stores begin to implement self-service options, mobile continues to gain momentum as the channel of choice.

"Mobile shopping allows customers to use their mobile devices to scan products they collect from the shelves as they walk around the aisles in the store," says Oren Betzaleli, executive vice president and head of marketing and products at Retalix. "This application is a direct evolution of the in-store 'self-service' trend that started with the introduction of 'self-checkout' lanes and with 'self-scan' devices used by customers to scan the products as they walk around the aisles, aiming to improve customers' experiences and reduce queue length."

Companies such as Cumberland Farms are also empowering customers by allowing them to buy fuel and pay via mobile. "This technology can be based on external digital wallet providers such as PayPal, which manages the payment itself and stores the card information," Betzaleli adds, "or it can be based on a retailer-owned digital wallet, in which the retailer manages the credit card database in its own data centers." Such tools cut back on customer wait times, supporting today's on-the-go lifestyle and enabling customers to purchase what they want, when and how they want.

Bringing Content to the Consumer

Though shoppers may be accustomed to seeing QR codes on every product they touch, Randall Stone, senior partner and director of customer experience and retail design at Lippincott, believes their finite lifespan is quickly coming to an end. Instead of codes that redirect users to a basic website, companies will begin to deliver content via mobile that engages customers and builds relationships beyond buying and selling. Such content ranges from additional information and video, to nutritional facts and recipes.

"Video has become a powerful tool for loyalty and connection," Stone says. "Companies have the opportunity to tell customers about their product in a human way that is easily understood. They have the power to create a dialogue with their customers, demystify their product, and empower consumers."

Betzaleli adds, "The in-store experience is limited to the information the retailer is able to place on the shelf and present on the product using the minimal real estate available. Mobile devices can turn this around, and provide consumers with a world of additional information and content about the products they are about to purchase in the store, simply by scanning the product."

Socializing the Shopping Experience

Traditionally, consumers head to the mall with their best shopping buddy. Getting someone else's opinion can often be the deal breaker during the purchase process. But, thanks to smartphones, shoppers can venture out with every family member and old friend right in their back pocket. Consumers can quickly post to Facebook or Twitter to consult their network when making an educated decision.

"Leading edge companies will begin to integrate the in-store experience with social media to create a shared shopping experience with friends," says Peter Friedman, CEO of LiveWorld. "Not just product information and ratings, but an actual discussion of what to buy, what is being bought, and non-shopping social topics among friends-just like people do when they physically shop together."

By embracing social media, brick-and-mortar stores facilitate conversations that get numerous potential customers discussing the brand. Friedman also predicts that customer experience integration, in which customers can ask questions, share experiences, and provide their own tutorials through integrated social media will become an innovative way for companies to engage potential customers, garner loyalty, and spark advocacy.

Looking Toward Location-Based Marketing

When cultivating new customer strategies, brick-and-mortar stores must remember one thing above all else: Nearly all customers carry the Internet with them wherever they go. They have the ability to compare prices and explore alternate products with just a few taps on their screen. With the competition just one click away, companies must differentiate their offerings through the intimacy of the in-store experience.

"While competitive pricing is important, and location is always an advantage, these two aspects will no longer be enough to close the sale," Friedman emphasizes. "Retailers will have to provide great customer experiences through innovative and integrated online and offline merchandising."

By using location-based technology as customers shop-not just as a tool to bring them into the store-companies have the opportunity to suggest nearby items based upon where the shopper is located within the store and what they've already picked off the shelves.

Betzaleli explains, assume a customer has already taken a six-pack of beer, scanned it with his mobile shopper application, and is now approaching the snack aisle. The mobile device can automatically detect when he's standing in the snack aisle, and recommend chips as a complementary product to the beer This action not only bolsters purchase levels, but also gives each shopper the feeling that the grocery store only has their best interests in mind.

Embracing the Benefits, Conquering the Challenges

Customers see every company as one entity, not multiple channels. Though many businesses still do not have the appropriate IT infrastructure to facilitate seamless, cross-channel experiences, customers are beginning to expect channel blending more than ever. For instance, Friedman notes that shoppers will not accept price discrepancies between online and offline offers. Stone highlights that the omnichannel approach is no longer just a trend, but the future of how brands do business.

"Companies must consider these new behavior patterns, recognizing that these are not simply product information and promotion channels, but rather represent new and different customer behavior and usage patterns," Friedman adds. Stone also emphasizes the fact that businesses can no longer think of channels separately, for the success of the brick-and-mortar store relies on making each shopper's experience feel continuous across every step of the customer journey.

"Blending channels offer retailers the potential to be more engaged with their consumers before, during and after shopping, and to be able to offer their customers with higher consistency and predictability," Betzaleli says. This blurring of channel distinctions builds upon and encourages customer loyalty, affinity, and advocacy to an extent that embraces the holistic view of each shopper, making everyone feel like an important, integral piece of the retail puzzle.