We asked Joe Keenan, editor-in-chief of the Retail and Travel Group at NAPCO Media, about how retailers can use technology like intelligent automation and SMS to boost their customer engagement.
Editor-in-Chief, Retail and Travel Group at NAPCO Media
How has technology become critical for retailers looking to continue growth and maintain competitive advantage through the pandemic?
I would probably take this from two different perspectives. One, the front-end experience use of technology for consumers and how they are engaging with brands. The digital acceleration that we’ve seen has been trending in this direction for quite some time and it’s really taken off due to the pandemic.
Consumers being a little more reluctant to go in-store, and for a certain period of time early on, many brick-and-mortar retailers being closed for periods of time. So that front-end experience, consumers are more comfortable shopping online, whether that be from their desktop or laptop, using their phones. The experience they are getting using some of the technology capabilities there is a level of comfort that is growing.
On the back end, it’s technology that is powering some of these seamless experiences from the retailer’s perspective. Supply chain, what you are doing in terms of marketing and merchandising, customer service, some of these technology systems that are enabling the use of technology by customers.
Lastly, using technology to create those frictionless, personalized shopping experiences. That includes all sectors across all your different channels, so stores, websites, mobile channels — technology is really the driver of those experiences. That is why it is critical that retailers are investing in solutions that can make the experience easier, more convenient, and speedier for the customer.
How are AI, robotics, and automation technologies helping retailers operate more efficiently on the back end?
In terms of automation, AI-powered software, and robotics, I think the greatest impact for those there are certainly many impacts across the organization, but will start with the supply chain. So we’ve seen the growth of the omnichannel fulfillment trend; things such as buy online and pick up in store, ship from store, retailers that have physical locations that are now fulfilling online orders from back rooms of physical stores, curbside pickup, etc. These touchless experiences that consumers that are still reluctant to go into crowded shopping locations, they are looking for these touchless experiences.
Things such as intelligent automation and AI-powered software, these things are enabling speed and accuracy across the supply chain that’s not possible with a manual, human approach. AI can process vast amounts of data in nanoseconds versus what would be possible for a data scientist to crunch. So the speed you are able to make decisions is really key there. The accuracy level, too — not just speed but ensuring the level of accuracy with AI and intelligent automation can really help to do that.
The demand planning that some of these tools can allow you to do, specifically around the AI, it can help you to do some predictive analytics and say “This is the behavior we are seeing,” and help to take action more quickly. Helping to prevent out-of-stock or overstock.
In terms of robotics, I would mention the two different roles there. To warehouse, accuracy and speed with warehouse picking of orders. Same in store, accuracy and speed of replenishing and picking of orders.
What ways do you find technology is reshaping the customer experience?
The bar has risen in terms of giving the customers, again we talked about Amazon in terms of logistics, but also the trailblazer in terms of the personalized experience. That has gone up a whole other level. Customers expect they are getting relevant personalized shopping experiences.
The level of comfort with using some of the technologies that are out there from a customer-facing perspective is continuing to rise, and they are expecting that experiences should be transferable across channels. If I start my shopping experience on a mobile app, I expect that if I add something to the cart, I expect if I don’t convert in the mobile app, I go over to your website on my desktop at home, that I’m still going to see my products, and that same experience is going to be relevant and connected.
Consumers are now using these different modes of communication and technology to engage with retailers, and their expectations have completely risen. Now it is on retailers to match those expectations.
Are there any other technologies that are helping retailers provide this consistent experience across all in-store and digital channels?
In terms of individual channels, I think SMS is a growing one as the consumer adoption of that continues to rise. You need to be respectful of consumers’ privacy — they obviously need to opt in and you can’t just start blasting an audience with text messaging. But I am bullish on that as a communication.
Chatbots and live chat is becoming more utilized by consumers and retailers, particularly on-site as a customer service tool. If you notice the customer has been on a checkout page for a certain length of time and think they might be experiencing a sort of roadblock or challenge, pop up a live chat bot that will be able to address their challenge; that’s another way the use of technology to help simplify make the customer experience a little more convenient and easier for them.
What do you find is the biggest challenge for retailers during the COVID-19 pandemic? What advice would you give to retailers moving forward to gain a competitive edge in 2021 and beyond?
The challenge for many, industry-wide, is rethinking or shifting mindsets on what physical brick-and-mortar retail is and how it fits into their organization. I think we are getting to the point where the days of just opening a store, putting in a product, and it only being a transaction channel are going away. I think retailers need to get out of that mindset that it’s just a place commerce is going to occur.
My advice for businesses looking to overcome that is using your stores as hubs for activity across all your channels. In order to do that, it’s going to take investment in data and technology. Collecting the right data, getting to know your customers’ behavior and preferences, and leveraging that data through technology, such as inventory and order management.
AI, automation, these are tools that can help you process this data quickly and easily so that you can then make decisions on the best ways to market to your customers, and serve your customers no matter the channels. I think the unification of data, the technology systems to enable them, then you are able to compete in this hyper competitive environment. The reinvention of physical retail, the shift in mindset, and using data and technology to help you get there.