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Many Companies Are Missing the Point of In-Store Tech

It’s an expert’s takeaway from a recent trade show that offered more flash than function

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A FEW WEEKS AGO, I traveled to London to attend the Smart Retail Tech Expo. I was particularly excited for this trip. London is one of my favorite cities, with an energy and history that’s tough to duplicate elsewhere in the world. I’m grateful that my work takes me to all sorts of far-flung destinations, but London holds a special place in my heart. In particular, I love how the city’s high-end retail manages to be cutting edge, yet at the same time steeped in history and tradition. London retail sets a very high standard that other markets often seek to emulate. From the venerable Harrods to the smaller but equally impressive Liberty, England’s capital never disappoints when it comes to delivering unforgettable retail experiences.

Throughout my career in retail, I spent countless days not just perusing London’s high-end stores for inspiration but observing customers as they shop to see how they respond to different retail settings. Pro tip: spend some time observing customers and salespeople in your competitors’ stores. It’ll be the most informative focus group you’ve ever had, and it won’t cost you a dime!

My expectations were sky-high for this year’s show. And in some ways, it lived up to my expectations. Exhibitors were out in force, showcasing some very impressive solutions. But as the show wore on, it became clear to me that much of the narrative was focused on innovative new technologies that were impressive yet did nothing to address retail pain points from the customer perspective. After all, the main point of using technology to augment the in-store experience is to create deeper connections with the customer. Despite the sea of flashy new tech solutions peddled at the show, most of them missed the mark entirely.

Investing in Back of House vs. Front of House

Ask any large retailer and they’ll surely tell you they’ve invested heavily in technology. And no doubt they have. But take a closer look at where those tech investments are being made. In many cases, retailers spend tens of millions of dollars improving their supply chains and closing the omnichannel gap. All of this is great, and necessary, but very little of that tech investment reaches customers in meaningful ways where it matters most: when they’re in-store and ready to make a purchase. Much of what I saw and heard at the show was focused on the importance of tech infrastructure, with little mention of how technology can create better in-store experiences.

Solving Problems that Don’t Exist

This is a pet peeve of mine. Particularly with technology, solution development tends to happen in reverse. Brilliant engineers develop solutions, and then savvy businesspeople find a market for them, effectively creating a solution before clearly articulating the problem that solution seeks to solve. Surprisingly enough, this approach is all too common in the retail space, mostly because there is no shortage of problems to solve in the retail world.

The REAL Opportunity

What I was hoping to see more of at the show was tech innovation that brings retailers closer to the holy grail of true shopper engagement. All too often, in-store tech is deployed for the sole purpose of catching shoppers’ eyes, with nothing substantive beyond that initial attraction. “Attract and engage” should be the mantra of any retailer that spends a single dollar on in-store tech, yet many of the stores I’ve visited lately (and I’ve visited many) are big on flash but fall short when it comes to creating meaningful engagement.

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Consider this: The very fact that a customer makes the effort to come into a store means they want something from the retailer, either some education to help them decide what to purchase, or simply validation to reaffirm their choice of product. Whether education or validation is the goal, in-store tech can help you get there. Here’s how:

Attract

Done right, technology can be an eye-catcher in any retail scenario. From a simple attract loop playing on a single fixed screen to an immersive branded experience in a flagship, technology plays an instrumental role in guiding the customer journey from the moment they enter. Sadly, this is where in-store tech ends for far too many retailers. Attraction simply opens the door to rewarding customer experiences – what you do after you’ve caught the customer’s eye is what matters most.

Many Companies Are Missing the Point of In-Store Tech

QR codes are an increasingly common method of creating in-store shopper engagement. They also give retailers the rare opportunity to initiate connections with their customers that endure long after they leave the store.

Engage

Each time a customer walks through the door, it’s an opportunity to engage them in a meaningful way. The in-store experience is about so much more than traffic and transactions. Too often, retailers look at hard metrics like footfall and sales data that they lose sight of what happens in between. A customer makes an investment of sorts when they come into your store – gas in their car, time out of their day – they’re trading those precious resources for the experience they have inside your store, so don’t disappoint them! Give them a return on their investment by weaving technology into the shopping experience in creative and rewarding ways. When they leave the store, whether they’ve made a purchase or not, they should leave feeling like the time spent in your store was well worth the effort.

 

Educate

The so-called “great resignation” hit the retail space particularly hard. Retailers have fewer salespeople than they did two years ago, and many of the sales associates on the floor today are newer to their roles and lack the depth of product knowledge necessary to convincingly make a sale. This is where technology can be a game-changer. For example, a touch-interactive display is a great way to present detailed product information that a customer can engage with on their own terms, at their own pace.

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Many Companies Are Missing the Point of In-Store Tech

Interactive touch screens give retailers an important gateway to customer engagement, especially in stores still managing through pandemic-related staffing challenges.

Convert

It seems a bit odd that I would even have to call this out, but close the deal already! And this isn’t as simple as just making a sale. Retailers are notorious for taking a narrow view of conversion. And who could blame them? At the end of the day, it’s all about sell-through, right? Wrong. Conversion isn’t binary, it’s not simply a question of whether or not you made the sale. Measuring success in terms of sales alone cheapens the end goal of what you’re trying to achieve in store. Conversion comes in many forms, so take the time to define what exactly you’re trying to achieve with customers when they’re in your store. Are you trying to increase dwell time? Do you want her to sign up for your customer loyalty program? Or maybe you’re playing the long game and your goal isn’t to make a sale on the spot, but to instead deliver such a memorable and positive experience in your store that they won’t consider going anywhere else when it comes time to make their next purchase. Defining and achieving conversion is complex. Thanks to technology we now have at our disposal, retailers should think big and be very specific about defining what successful conversion looks like in their stores.

I’m passionate about these issues because I lived them both from the perspective of the retailer, and now as a consultant helping retailers make better use of their technology investments. As a former retailer, I understand the barriers that exist to creating lasting impact at retail. Change does not come easy, especially when a retailer is set in its ways and reluctant to change how things have been done for many years. That said, I’ve also seen the cost of inaction, and that’s what retailers risk today if they don’t make smart investments in retail tech.

Retail Phase Change is a platform for Andy Austin to share his perspective and insights on the ever-changing retail landscape. With over two decades of experience leveraging technology to improve the customer experience, he is a longtime retailer and passionate advocate for the creative use of technology as an engaging sales tool, creating exciting, cutting-edge solutions for age-old problems at retail. Andy is president of The Industrious, a retail consultancy that elevates brands by creating bold and memorable experiences that spark deep emotional connections in-store.

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