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Tech by Design: Bringing Us Back to the Future

How does technology impact “gold standard” customer service?

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Welcome to the first “Tech by Design” article, the first of an ongoing series that will explore various facets of the retail space. I’ve spent over three decades working for and running companies that address nearly every touchpoint of the customer journey. I hope to use this column as a platform to share bits and pieces of what I’ve learned over the years.

First, let me say, there is nothing unique about a column on how technology is increasingly underpinning the trends and needs of physical retail.  As we move out of the pandemic, information about digital transformation at retail can be found sprouting up daily. But much of this narrative centers on operational efficiencies such as pricing and p-o-s systems, inventory control, energy management and security. These technologies do offer some soft benefits to the shopper, but for the most part they focus on reducing costs for the retailer. And while “Tech by Design” may tangentially touch on these systems, the focus will be shopper centric.  In other words, we’ll be examining technologies that enhance the customer experience and offering insights to the retailer on how the physical store is shopped.

As a starting point, it is helpful to ask ourselves why shopper-centric technologies are so critical to a retailer’s success. The answer lies in the basic tenet of retailing: delivering good customer service that drives sales and translates to strong brand loyalty.

The gold standard for customer service has nothing to do with technology. Think of a 1940s Norman Rockwell-like scene featuring a general store owner serving his customers. The owner greeted every customer by name, knew their family member’s likes and dislikes, asked how they were enjoying a previous purchase, and often anticipated their needs with recommendations and an occasional “try this” surprise. At the town’s barbershop or at social gatherings, folks would talk about how great the service is, and his popularity expands though positive word-of-mouth. This was the “social media” of yesteryear, and those same principles still hold true today.

Given the massive scale in which retail operates, combined with challenges around staff turnover, associate training and product complexities, that gold standard of customer service is nearly impossible to achieve. Customer-centric technologies are an enabler that allow retailers to move “back to the future” and not abandon the intimacy of the in-person shopping experience as they scale. Without it, physical retailing becomes less relevant, especially as e-commerce alternatives become more prevalent.

As a retailer, the critical starting point is to examine your data readiness. Most retailers are dealing with a “data quilt” consisting of a patchwork of data sets that do not easily come together and cannot be used to gain a holistic view of their customers. The buzzword “omnichannel” is most commonly used to describe this comprehensive view of the customer across e-commerce, m-commerce and in-store transactions. In my opinion, the word omnichannel has been batted around so much it has lost its meaning. I prefer the term “unified commerce.” The concept of unified commerce goes beyond the multi-channel sales data to include customer relationship data (CRM), inventory and assortment management, price and promotional data, customer journey (on- and off-line) and much more.

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“Tech by Design” will be light on technical “speeds and feeds,” with more emphasis on use cases, data-driven shopper insights, benefits, and especially ROI. Wherever possible, I will invite retailers to offer candid real-world experiences along with leading tech suppliers to lay out the roadmap of future innovations that are coming to market. I will also be looking at similar tech in other industries to serve as a navigational beacon for retail. With each column, I will take you on a brief journey to explore the various types of shopper-centric tech. My hope is that you find them as useful to read as they are enjoyable for me to write.

Stuart Armstrong is the founder and managing director of AAG Consulting.  You can follow him on Twitter @digisignman and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/armstrongstuart.

Stuart Armstrong is the founder and managing director of AAG Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter @digisignman and on LinkedIn.

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