February 17, 2016

From robots to fully digitally empowered sales associates

As the share of ecommerce in retail sales grows, many major retail brands have been forced to either close or reconsider the role of their brick-and-mortar stores. At the same time, the IoT and IoE are changing the way we interact with the world, and new innovations are being pushed to market at an ever-increasing speed. Retailers are constantly seeing new opportunities to connect with their customers differently.

It's easy for us in the industry to be overwhelmed by all of these trends and possibilities, while we still have core business goals to meet and customers to serve.

I recently visited Retail's BIG Show, the annual conference of the National Retail Federation (NRF), where I was able to mingle with some 540 different solution providers claiming to have developed the next big thing for the industry. In order to make the most of my trip, I made the conscious decision to learn mostly about the digitally enabled store, both in the conference halls and out on the street in New York.

In this blog post, I'd like to sum up what I found, as well as how this is relevant and useful to us in Nordic retail.

The role of the sales associate

Retail is a people business. It always has been and always will be. In Finland alone, the industry employs more than 300,000 people and - despite the growing use of self-service in many food stores and supermarkets - the most vital role continues to be the role of the sales associate. 

We’ve seen the entrance of handheld devices for store employees to ease the burden of routine work like shelving and inventory management. But there are still many use cases around digitally empowered sales associates that have yet to be fully explored.

In the field of consumer electronics, we've already seen how mobile technologies and operating systems move into new product categories and form factors over time. If you're a retailer who intends to invest in new digital tools for sales associates, it makes sense to consider the full range of possible uses for your technology - serve customers better with rich product information, have shelving and picking tools available, use mobile devices as POS solutions and so on.

In a world where your customers themselves are equipped with the latest gadgets and expect to receive a knowledgeable and personalised service wherever they shop, choosing the cheapest possible single-purpose device might not be the best way to digitally empower your sales associates and achieve your business goals. And don't worry too much about legacy - there are technologies out there to help you modernise your assets bit by bit.

The digital store

It's easy to see the rise of the digital store as a threat, forcing retailers to transform their core business processes, logistics, backend systems and business metrics. However, there are also plenty of good examples of retailers that have managed well with less.

Take Bonobos, the ecommerce-driven apparel company. Digital solutions are the core of its business, but the concept behind its guideshops is simple - customers receive a personalised service from a knowledgeable sales associate, have the opportunity to browse and try on items from the entirety of the ecommerce catalogue, and can then place an order before leaving empty-handed. The store doesn't need much space and yet it never runs out of stock.

I think this concept would work well in the Nordic markets, where there's often only a few options for men's clothing outside of big cities. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Rebecca Minkoff store is something that no visitor to New York should miss. From the moment you enter the store, it's impossible not to admire and learn from the entire customer experience. And it's not just the tablets, interactive mirrors and clever uses of RFID that are impressive - it's the sense of harmony and fluidity between sales associates and the technology they use.

We've been waiting years for RFID technology to gain traction in the consumer goods and apparel industry. After seeing so many great use cases at NRF 2016, it really feels like the breakthrough is finally at hand.

Technology that makes an impression

Sadly, a few of the concept stores we saw in New York didn't live up to our expectations in the quite same way. Their digital solutions either lacked that special something or were essentially gimmicks, with relevance neither to the business or its customers.

We're living in a world where VR gadgets are starting to roll out to the mass market, driverless cars are in the spotlight and wearable devices have passed the peak of the hype cycle. It's no longer possible to attract and impress consumers with technology that has neither novelty nor value for them.

One of the more interesting exhibits at the NRF show was Pepper, a humanoid robot being mooted as the sales assistant of the future. If you're a retailer who wants to create a positive vibe for brick-and-mortar customers using technology, perhaps now would be a good time to introduce this kind of solution to your store on a temporary basis. This would bring people into your store for a glimpse of the shopping experience of tomorrow, and the increased foot traffic might also contribute to a rise in sales.

However, this shouldn't be the only way you invest in technology. Instead, focus on building a proper digital store framework, and lay the foundation for true innovation and transformation in the future.

Feel free to join our breakfast seminars to see how modern technology creates new concepts and new possibilities. Join us and take part of the world´s biggest retail conference condensed into one hour presentation at either of our locations; Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Helsinki or Oslo.

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