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Retail Technology

How the Right Technology Improves Retail Across All Channels

Our expert panel discussed the retail technologies that will make a difference for consumers and businesses alike in 2021 and beyond.

Robin Daniels

Chief Marketing Officer, Matterport

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today and what advice would you provide to these businesses?

The last year surfaced many challenges for the modern retailer. As businesses start to re-open again, retailers will need to identify solutions that drive business growth and appeal to both customers who are ready for in-person shopping and those who’d rather shop from the comforts of their homes while standing out from the competition.

One piece of advice I’d like to give is to put your customers first. If you put your customers first, business will follow. Think of your customers’ wants and needs. Address their concerns and use innovative solutions to grow your business.

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

Smart retail has expanded beyond technologies designed to optimize the customer experience. With Matterport, retailers can leverage 3D digital twins of their physical stores to reach beyond borders and attract a new global audience while offering a seamless virtual shopping experience with one solution. Shoppers can become better oriented with the store and inventory. For those wondering if a sofa will fit in a certain spot, we have Measurement Mode that allows a shopper to take dimensionally accurate measurements. Virtual shoppers can navigate around the digital twin and make purchases as if they were really in the store.

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the last year due to the ongoing pandemic?

The ongoing pandemic has massively affected retailers everywhere. Due to closures and limiting regulations, retailers must find a way to capture the attention of customers from far and wide to drive growth.

Retailers offering a holistic approach that integrates the physical and virtual touchpoints of the customer’s journey are able to reach a wider audience and have seen some of the biggest impacts. A recent Matterport survey revealed that 73 percent of respondents prefer to shop a 3D virtual store. The future of retail is hybrid.

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their shopping experiences?

Retailers should seek to identify and understand their customers’ pain points. If customers are having to wait to enter stores due to capacity limits, perhaps one should consider implementing processes and technologies that can help eliminate the wait. A retailer can offer FaceTime consultations to reduce the time customers spend in-store or create a 3D digital twin of the physical store for a virtual shopping experience that is shoppable 24/7 and never has a capacity limit.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

With retailers around the world shifting to virtual shopping experiences during this ongoing pandemic, the savvy customer got savvier. No longer will the typical commerce style of displaying products on white background be acceptable. Seventy-five percent of survey respondents were more interested in shopping in 3D rather than 2D.

Creating digital twins with integrated eCommerce is a method that retailers can leverage to showcase products in electrifying and immersive ways to a global audience. The shift toward digital transformation will bring many long-term changes to the retail industry. The hybridization of ecommerce and brick-and-mortar shopping is here to stay.

Shannon Colquhoun

Vice President of Retail, E-Commerce and Consumer Goods, Talkdesk

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today and what advice would you provide to these businesses? 

The industry has been facing the same challenge for the past 20  years — technology is required to meet customer expectations and optimize operating models, but customer engagement and communication systems have traditionally been on-premises and disparate, with data that is both messy and hard to access. 

Although direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands had the advantage of starting greenfield with more modern technology at the foundation of their growth, all retailers are now adopting new channels and attempting to scale to keep up with customers. Brick-and-mortar and digital-native brands alike must make room (investments and organizational bandwidth) to upgrade customer-touching technology by unifying customer engagement and communication across channels in a single platform. 

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

Technology, technology, technology! It should be integrated into every business, customer, and organizational strategy. Smart retail means having a 360-degree view of your customers at all times and being able to make insightful decisions based on data from all of their engagements with your company: their complaints, sentiment, mood, and preferences. 

For too long, shiny objects received the dollars, leaving organizations with a hodge-podge of tools. This cripples teams and leads to disjointed, inconsistent service. A popular question of the day is, “How do we do more with less?” Technology isn’t just an answer to productive and personalized customer engagement, it’s also a must for organizational effectiveness and efficiency. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year due to the ongoing pandemic?

There are so many! If a retailer wasn’t convinced of the value of the cloud and the need for good customer data, they should be now. Unified customer experience channels (voice, SMS, video, social, etc.) within the contact center, workforce management tools, content management systems, contactless shopping and payment tools, and real-time inventory visibility just to name a few (…the list goes on and on). Not to mention the AI capabilities we are seeing move into all these categories. But most of these are now table stakes no matter what category you’re in. 

All of these solutions have been in the market, but they can no longer be ignored, on-prem, and disparate. All systems must  integrate with each other, feeding data to and from the contact center: the primary hub of customer engagement — the ‘voice’ of your company. 

What steps do you recommend retailers take to strengthen their customer relationships across multiple channels?

Research shows us that experience is now more important than product and just one bad experience can turn a customer away forever. Price still matters, but now, cross-channel fluidity, availability, consistency, personalization, and convenience do as well. 

Retailers must go beyond “multi-channel” and into “omnichannel” customer service, meaning that regardless of where, how, or with whom customers engage, they should feel known, heard, and understood. Customers should feel as if they’re the only ones in the room and that they have your undivided attention. To do so, customer-facing employees must all have access to centralized customer data, including preference and details about previous engagements, as well as the proper tools to engage across any channel.

What long-term changes due you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

Digital shopping isn’t new, but wasn’t necessarily a go-to channel for all demographics. That has changed. Services like curbside pick-up were emerging, but quickly became more popular than buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS). RFID, which has also been around for years, is now a must to have real-time inventory visibility. Returns are an even bigger issue to tackle with the increase in online sales and revenue loss. 

How retailers engage with their customers consistently, whether online or in-person, will continue to evolve and customer service through that journey will only get more complicated as new channels emerge. Many retailers have been slow to fully adopt customer-first omnichannel strategies, but these are now non-negotiables. 

Adam Settle

Chief Experience Officer, Sharpen

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today and what advice would you provide to these businesses?  

Being “connected” is a pain point we all feel, especially as it pertains to retail. Since our customers can’t walk in the door anymore, digital channels are more important than they’ve ever been. If you aren’t already available through digital channels, you really have to be. To take that a step further, since customers can’t stop in to browse, ensure you’re participating in outbound campaigns to get yourself in front of the right customers at the right time. This isn’t all on you, digital automation is your friend. 

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

While we can never replace the value of face-to-face interactions, customers want the same personalized experience while staying safe. This might mean they’re looking for you to proactively give them access to personal shopping sessions through video, or maybe it’s more advanced, using data-driven integrations with your CRM to automate proactivity through triggers or otherwise. 

“Smart” should also apply to your employees. Their in-person soft-skills may need leveling-up when communicating through digital channels. Triggers and keywords can be set up in your interaction technology to proactively coach and train when employees need it without having to dig through a cumbersome process. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the last year due to the ongoing pandemic?

When foot traffic slowed down, a lot of retailers focused on using new digital communication channels for their customers, which is great. However, the benefit comes from how those channels are managed on the backend. If a customer reaches out on three different channels, you need to see that in a single customer view. 

Offering more communication channels hurts overall experience when it is disjointed and siloed. Centralizing the communication tech-stack helps ensure you aren’t dropping the ball between channels, customers aren’t repeating themselves, and employees don’t have to bounce between windows to get a holistic view. 

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their employee engagement?

One of my favorite thought experiments is to think about your customer experience and the areas you measure and improve. Then, replace the word “customer” with “employee” and use that as a launching pad for employee experience. Take CSAT for example. Many of us gather it and review it often. Imagine how awful it would be to only ask for feedback once or twice a year from your customers. Yet most of us are okay gathering employee satisfaction annually. What improvements could you make to gather employee feedback with the same intensity and focus?

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

Working from home is here to stay. From a customer-perspective, you need to ensure you’re available (and active) on the channels they want to use to communicate. For your employees, that means your technology should be flexible in-office and out. You need collaboration tools to replace back-of-house whiteboards, daily downloads, and feedback. Managers need tools to augment the experience of walking the floor and huddling with their teams. 

Andrew Lozier

CEO, Lozier Corporation

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today and what advice would you provide to these businesses?

The cost and availability of labor is a significant challenge given the explosion of ecommerce and the increased number of workers needed to meet consumer demand. There is a shortage of labor, labor costs are rising, and it’s difficult to retain employees in a highly competitive market. 

My advice is to think about your business from your customer’s perspective and your employee’s perspective. Customers demand quality, convenience, speed, variety, and value from a retailer. Retail employees want fair compensation, flexibility, interactions with customers and safe work. These two key groups are essential to retail success and I would recommend focusing automation efforts to satisfy employees as well as customers. 

Automation done properly can make an employee’s job more enjoyable and less physical, opening the door to opportunities for enhanced customer service levels. 

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

Smart retail to me means leveraging data and automation in pursuit of a goal. At Lozier+CASI, we put the customer’s problem front and center, and we create solutions in partnership with our customers. “Smart retail” is going to be different for every retailer and a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year as a result of the pandemic?

The explosion of curbside pickup is the biggest trend I saw in 2020. It has been so big that I think retailers are going to spend the next couple of years catching up to it. This catchup effort involves substantial storage and transactional capacity increases. 

What does the future of retail automation look like to you?

A smart automation strategy will be a key driver of success for retailers, but human interaction and environment will be equally important, and it must all tie together seamlessly in a brick-and-mortar store. The store needs to transact accurately and efficiently like a warehouse, but it needs to look visually appealing and have human touch points. 

Customers like the low prices efficiency brings, but they don’t want to feel like they’ve stepped into a robotic warehouse. Automation in the store will need to fit the aesthetics, or be invisible and non-disruptive. There’s no question automation will be essential to be competitive, and successful retailers will find a way to integrate it into the overall customer experience in a very positive way. 

What long-term changes due you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

Long term, we will look back and say the pandemic was good for brick-and-mortar retail as it forced retailers to adapt rapidly to expanded customer needs and expectations. While ecommerce is leading the lion’s share of growth, the stores are finding their place with ship-from-store and curbside pickup. This new level of convenience with added services will be here for the long run.

Anne-Queline Keller

Solutions Marketing Director, Retail and Supply Chain, Alteryx

What key roles are smart technologies now playing within manufacturing? 

We see smart technologies used in a variety of ways, not solely delegated to the traditional IoT functions. Smart technologies are appearing all along the supply chain, from finance, to HR, to sales and Marketing, to fulfillment and services. Anywhere, where AI and machine learning, as well as NLP can be used to either augment the decision-making to unassisted processes that do not require human intervention.

What sort of an impact has COVID-19 had on the adoption of technology within the manufacturing industry?

The impact to manufacturing was unprecedented. At first, everyone was focused on supplier issues. I remember speaking to a large NA beverage multinational company early in the crisis. Their comment back to me was that they were OK, because most of their raw materials for their beverage were grown in North America. But as time went on, they were just as impacted by other factors, such as employee safety and logistics as they export their beverages. 

Gaining access to raw materials was crucial. Many manufacturers had at best about eight weeks’ worth of materials on hand. For an animal alimentation manufacturer, this meant having to revisit some of the specialized food recipes that they offered, and looking to source substitutes. Due to the time this type of process usually takes, using analytics and being able to model several new recipes based on raw material and additive substitution was key to being able to react quickly to a new normal.

The same is true of employee safety, having to run your PUs at 50 percent capacity is a major disruption for any manufacturer who relies heavily on manual assembly, and this was due mostly having to keep personnel 6 feet apart on the shop floor. In most cases when you have a capacity issue, you outsource to another manufacturer, but if they themselves cannot pick up the capacity, where do you go? 

Here we had a multinational manufacturer shut down their operation in China and South Korea early on in the crisis, only to try and figure out how they could increase and pick up the capacity in their NA manufacturing sites. Because this organization had already been using analytics to clearly understand their echelons, dependencies for BOMs and materials, as well as their safety stock levels. They already had the granularity of insights necessary to allow them to pivot, because much of the analyzing had already been done and was part of their everyday workstream.

What impacts or challenges has Industry 4.0 brought to the manufacturing sector?

I think COVID demonstrates that if you can use robotics, 3D imaging and IoT to do some of the work on the shop floor and in your logistics, that in the most recent environment, you most likely fared better. Manufacturers are continuing to see the improvements by using these technologies and that investment is paying off. 

Upskilling of employees is still a challenge, but more and more technology providers understand this challenge and are providing human-centered interfaces that are easy to use, allowing employees with no previous coding experience to use more advanced technologies to their advantage. The human experience here is key: it needs to be as simple as using your reasoning capabilities to make augmented decisions. If you have ever seen the Rolls Royce autonomous ship video, that is the future of automation; AI and machine learning.

How can manufacturers efficiently analyze their data for immediate ROI?

That is the million-dollar question. I am of two beliefs: One is that you should approach that problem from the outside in, meaning, identify processes that directly impact the customer and transform these first. Obviously by positively impacting the customer, the ROI will be demonstrated immediately. 

Second is that not ALL data has the same value. The “not so obvious” sometimes in data science is the key to why something or someone is behaving a certain way. I think it’s important to take the time to look at the data and apply data sciences to learn and train a model. Through this exercise you begin to realize what data has real value and what is inconsequential.

How can data be used to predict future outcomes for manufacturers?

Data itself cannot predict; it’s the use of AI and ML that allows data to be transformed to gain predictive insights. Again, no data is the same. For example, to use a time series to predict an outcome, the data must be a time sequence and it cannot be patchy. But if you have this type of data, then you can train a model. Once your model is trained and you can answer the question “what happened?’, you can start playing what-if scenarios, and then incorporate other data points outside of the traditional historical data, such as weather data, or COVID data. 

Based on these external factors, you can begin to predict a range of outcomes. Remember whatever comes out is never an exactitude, it is a prediction with a certain percentage of certainty based on how the model had been trained. 

What is the single most effective way manufacturing professionals can begin to utilize their data in the coming months?

Right now, it’s about one thing: automation. It’s vital that manufacturers look for analytic process automation in their supply chain. Using a process intelligence tool can help identify anomalies, identify dependencies, and pinpoint areas in the process that can be automated. Once these automation opportunities have been identified, using a platform that provides a way to integrate the data, analyze it, and automate the process is imperative to find better ways to play out scenarios, and predict what can happen. 

Automation will come in three ways and drive three distinct results. There is automation for speed of results, automating reporting and dashboards can help speed up the current very slow and mostly manual processes to get reports and KPIs generated to monitor and measure performance. Hyper automation, such as IA and ML, allow the organization to granularly see what is happening. In order to pivot as an organization, you have to be able to see the forest for the trees, but running that kind of detail, whether it be a demand forecast at parts-level by regions for example, in many cases seems impossible, but it is possible with the use of data science and engines that have been built to take advantage of advanced machine learning capabilities. Many of these are code-free and allow individuals with little statistical — let alone mathematics — background to use these phenomenal tools. 

Lastly is the automation of processes, where based on an outcome from an analytic process, a routine is automated through an RPA bot that kicks off another process logic located somewhere in the enterprise. This is where non-assisted decisions can be taken; decisions that quite frankly do not require human intervention.

Doug Regner

Vice President of Sales for the Retail Industry, Podium

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today, and what advice would you give to these businesses?

The biggest challenge today is that customer expectations have completely transformed. Retailers are competing in a world of on-demand everything, with sky-high expectations for value, convenience, and personalized customer experience. The trend started well over a decade ago with Amazon, but has wildly accelerated during the pandemic.

What can businesses do? Meet customers where they’re already at — on their phones. Using channels like text and webchat allows retailers to connect with customers in a way that’s convenient for them. From there, it’s up to retailers to deliver the experiences that customers prefer, with features like contact-free or curbside service. To be convenient and responsive in a world where consumer behavior may be permanently altered is the key to staying relevant and competitive.

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

In my opinion, smart retail is all about bridging the gap between the online and offline world to enhance the customer experience. Google recently found that over three quarters of consumers actively use their phones in stores to make product decisions, and failure to adapt accordingly is a huge missed opportunity. Retailers that recognize this reality and use it to proactively assist customers can create impactful, personalized experiences. Doing this can turn local business and the human touch into a competitive advantage, even in a digital-first world.

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year?

At Podium, we have a unique perspective; we see trends happen in aggregate across thousands of local retailers that we partner with every day. In our platform, we’ve seen engagement rates among retailers and consumers spike in a few areas.

First, with webchat and messaging. Seemingly overnight as organizations went contact-free, consumers started turning to retail websites and text to have the casual, instant conversations they might have had in-person at their local stores.

Text-to-pay usage has also exploded in growth. Consumers value contact-free options now more than ever and that has carried over to the point of sale. What’s been interesting is that those peak usage rates still haven’t fallen a year later, which indicates that consumers have grown accustomed to a more convenient experience.

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their employee engagement?

This has been a very hard year for retail employees — many of whom have been essential workers throughout this global crisis. The pandemic has resulted in more customer channels that they now have to monitor, safety protocols to follow and enforce, anxiety around their own safety and that of the customer, fewer staff, and longer hours. 

One thing retailers can do to improve morale is invest in tools that make aspects of a difficult job more efficient. For example, consolidating the way in which businesses receive and manage their incoming messages, so that jumping from inbox to inbox — including text, Facebook Messenger, phone, and chat — isn’t a struggle for already busy employees.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

In our recent State of Local Business report, we found that 86 percent of consumers say they “expect businesses to be even more convenient,” even after COVID-19 restrictions lift. We’re hearing the phrase “new normal” a lot, but it’s especially true in retail. Moving forward, customers who have learned to appreciate convenient experiences with local retailers are going to expect the same conveniences moving forward. Quick responses through webchat, text-to-pay, and curbside-pickup were already happening, but in just 12 months, they have now become must-haves.

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