Retail has come a long way in the past years. With data at their fingertips, retailers have become extremely effective at keeping track of their customers' preferences and transactional histories and ensuring they deliver relevant communications that are tailored to an individual customer.
However, much of this drive has been taking place in the online arena, leaving a glaring discrepancy between the hyper-personalized experience that customers can expect online to the rather anonymous one when they walk into a brick-and-mortar store.
But today's customers are demanding more. As the online and offline worlds get closer together, and customers move unpredictably between the two, these shoppers are demanding the same personalized experience every time they interact with a brand, irrespective of the channel. This is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers to leverage technology and data to deliver the very intimate experience that, as 1to1 Media mentioned in this article, was prevalent just a few years ago.
"The online and offline worlds are merging," stresses Mathieu Hannouz, senior product marketing manager at Adobe. And as Hannouz notes, the more savvy business leaders are recognizing the necessity of making sure their strategy includes a way to bridge their messages across the board. This starts with the ability to identify customers early on in the process, preferably as soon as they walk into a store.
One of the main challenges that retailers face is the ability to bring together data not only from online and brick-and-mortar stores, but also from all customer touchpoints. While retailers have always been in possession of a lot of data, Lori Mitchell-Keller, senior vice president of SAP's Global Industry Business Unit, notes that "historically data has been in fiefdoms and not unified." Nathan Richter, director of client solutions at Monetate, agrees. "Making data accessible is the primary challenge," he notes. While there have been steps forward by brands that try to centralize their data, hurdles including having the technology to process large amounts of data in real time to provide relevant and timely interactions with customers. Such systems, which are now commercially available, allow organizations to analyze customers across all points of interaction, giving retailers a 360-degree view of clients in real time and allowing sales associates to use this data to personalize the conversation.
Even smaller retailers have recognized the benefits of having customer data in hand during their interactions with customers. Last year Fondren Guitars, a small guitar shop in Jackson, Mississippi, implemented NCR Silver, a point-of-sale solution that keeps track of customer information and provides retailers with the needed data while the client is in the store. Patrick Harkins, the store's owner, explains that he is now able to keep a record of each customer's purchases easily accessible. "Sometimes customers walk in wanting to purchase guitar strings but having forgotten what they got last time," he says. Data is helping Harkins and his employees take the guesswork out of the equation simply by looking at that individual customer's previous purchases.
Further, Harkins is leveraging data to reach out to customers with very personalized information, for example sending reminders that it's time to take their musical instrument for a tune-up. When Harkins purchased a PA system, he was able to leverage the CRM system to contact a customer whose daughter was learning how to sing. "I sold it immediately," he notes.
The power of identification
One major difference between online and in-store retail is the difficulty of identifying customers who walk into a store. While online retailers are able to track their clients' moves, including their browsing histories and what they put in their carts but never purchased, in the brick-and-mortar environment many customers remain completely anonymous until they check out. This means that retailers are losing out on extremely important data about what each individual customer's interests and who came into the store but left without making a purchase.
Loyalty programs are often used as a way to identify customers and accessing data about them, including store and online history. However, this interaction is often left until the end of the shopping experience, when a customer goes to check out. As such, retailers can miss out on an opportunity to help customers throughout their shopping journeys, including those who walk out without making a purchase.
Imagine this situation-a customer walks into a fashion retailer looking for a dress she saw online earlier that day and which she is interested in purchasing to wear that evening. With no sales associates offering to help, the customer looks for that particular dress but when she doesn't find it leaves to try her luck at other retailers. She walks into a second store and is greeted by a sales associate who asks whether she would like to identify herself. The customer shares her information and the associate immediately brings up her details on a tablet. She asks the customer whether she's looking for the same dress she was looking at online earlier in the day, and then helps the shopper find it. While the customer is trying on the dress, the associate brings out a pair of shoes that the customer had been looking at earlier in the week and which are now on sale.
Does this sound like science fiction? It's not and some retailers are already leveraging technology to make this experience a reality. Mitchell-Keller uses the example of Burberry which is equipping associates with a mobile application that identifies customers by their name and other basic details like a zip code. The device then accesses their purchase histories, and makes recommendations based on that information. "If a customer recently purchased a dress, the associate can recommend a shawl to allow the customer to continue wearing that outfit during the fall," Mitchell-Keller notes.
Yet, while most customers are conscious that self-identification can help them get a more tailored experience, they don't always take the initiative to do so. Many times, they're waiting for sales associates to approach them and other times they want to spend some time browsing without interruption.
However, experts believe that if organizations can show customers the benefits of self-identification, they will be more willing to raise their hands and announce themselves. Monetat's Richter notes that sales associates can take cues from customers' body language to start a conversation during which they get information that helps them identify the customer.
Is mobile the key?
Advances in technology mean that organizations can use automated ways to identify customers. Mobile is the key in this regard since it's a device that customers tend to carry with them all the time and can alert stores that a customer has just walked in. "There is a lot of experimentation using customers' mobile devices," notes Graeme Grant, president and COO of CQuotient,
Apart from leveraging technology for IP address recognition or geofencing, Grant recommends giving customers incentives to make themselves known. This might include offering free wifi in exchange for their email addresses, which can then be matched to the company's CRM records. Supermarkets that encourage customers to use their smartphones as scanners can go a step further and encourage them to identify themselves, and then send these shoppers targeted offers.
Further, mobile goes beyond telling retailers that a particular customer is in their store. It can deliver extremely important data as to the path that the individual shopper is taking and where he stops to browse. Late last year Apple released the iBeacon location-sensing technology in its retail stores, allowing the tech giant to send messages to customers based on their location and proximity to sensors in stores, for example letting them know if they're eligible for a phone upgrade as they pass by the new iPhone display.
As we mentioned in this article, Hi-Time Wine Cellars has been using similar geofencing technology to send customers extremely relevant information at its 3,000 square feet Costa Mesa store. As Tobin Sharp, the company's creative director explains, the company installed geo-tags in different sections within the store, allowing it to push relevant information to customers who download the store app. If, for example, a customer walks into the champagne room, he is sent information about a particular bottle or sent a relevant offer while a customer browsing in the cigar section might be sent an offer for a bottle of whisky.
Taking the first step
Eric Tobias, vice president of Web Products at ExactTarget notes that organizations need to start by determining how they want to identify their customers. "Is it through a loyalty card, an email, or a telephone number?" he says. Secondly, sales associates need to be equipped with devices to capture customers' identification data and access their profiles, allowing the associates to tailor experiences to individuals.
One question that crops up often is whether attempts to identify customers when they walk into a store could be verging on intrusion. Experts believe that the solution is making sure retailers deliver value through a relevant experience. "Customers are very sensitive about their personal data, but if they know there's a benefit for them, they will share," Tobias says.