May 25, 2015

How to turn product information into a strategic asset

Tuukka Karjalainen

Solution manager, Tieto

Finding product information online is now a key part of the customer journey in retail. What's more, using this data to support in-store sales is simple. So why is nobody doing it?

For many retailers, there's little more important than to be able to provide customers with accurate, detailed product information. Not all purchasing decisions are straightforward ones, so the availability of this data - what a product can do, who it's aimed at, how it stacks up against its competitors - can easily spell the difference between a sale and a customer leaving the store empty-handed.

Right now, the web often beats brick-and-mortar retail hands down in this department. Few salespeople are as persuasive a a thousand peer reviews on Amazon, for example. And with the rise of smartphones and internet access on the go, this has translated into more lost sales than ever before.

Let's say you enter a shop on impulse and a discounted product catches your eye. If there's not enough data available in-store for you to be 100 per cent sure of the purchase, you might pick up your smartphone to search for more information online, look at user reviews and compare it to similar items. There's a chance you'll end up on a competitor's site, browsing equally attractive products at a range of price points, and this might affect your final decision.

Alternatively, maybe you decide one day to buy a new camera, a laptop or a pair of running shoes, but as soon as you walk into the store you're overwhelmed by the sheer number of products on the display. To save time, and to ensure you don't end up regretting the wrong purchase, you leave the shop to do some research online at home.

Finally, imagine you find an item you love, but it's not available in your preferred size, colour or model. Without the right product information, you might not even know whether or not those specs exist. Another lost sale.

These points of discontinuation should be familiar to just about any brick-and-mortar retailer active today, and all of them could be remedied by having the right data in the right place and at the right time. But most multichannel firms still don't see their online product information as an asset that can be used to support in-store sales.

Getting the right data to the customer

Bringing this data into the store environment isn't a difficult thing to do. Many retailers are already experimenting with tablets and digital displays to augment the in-store customer experience, and it'd be easy to use these to deliver online product information to the shop floor: their websites are up and running and mobile-optimised, and people of all ages are comfortable navigating them on touchscreen devices.

There are a few different ways this might work. One example is the use of an embedded tablet in front of each item, such as can be seen in Apple stores. Alternatively, the retailer could install a single, larger screen on which a customer might browse either alone or with a salesperson, potentially talking through their options - and their reservations - with another human being. Finally, the simplest and lowest-cost solution would be to hand out tablets to members of staff, providing a similar customer experience on smaller, more portable screens.

In the long run, of course, retailers might choose to be even more ambitious. My previous blog described the use of smart mirrors in Rebecca Minkoff's New York store; perhaps in the future, it'll be common for fashion outlets to use augmented reality so customers can try on garments that aren't even in stock.

In each case, though there's an opportunity to furnish shoppers with more in-depth information on the products they're viewing, as well as to recommend alternatives and add-on extras based on data such as sales rankings and common buyer behaviours. This not only prevents people from picking up their smartphones, but also improves the customer experience in general - and more sales will come naturally.

Establishing effective product information management

Unfortunately, one major obstacle remains before retailers can make strategic use of their online product information in-store: the quality of that information itself.

Many multichannel firms see the process of generating and updating website data as a cost centre, particularly in small language areas like Finland where everything has to be localised. In reality, much of this work can either be automated or outsourced. A shift in mindset is required: retailers need to start looking at effective product information - online and offline - as a key component in their omnichannel strategy, and understand that manual labour is only a small part of this.

As an aside, another barrier may be that companies don't want to display user-generated content in their stores, fearing that the feature could be abused or present a poor impression of their stock. But it's also important to see it from another perspective: to deliver the best possible customer experience, a retailer should sell the best possible products. And that means not allocating shelf space to items that attract bad reviews.

Remember: thanks to smartphones and internet access, customers now almost always have high quality product information at their fingertips. If they can get it from you rather than your competition, so much the better.

You can read more about digital customer journey in retail here.

Digital customer experience management in retail

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