The turnaround: how lessons from online retail tech are helping the high street to thrive

By Peter Wake, founder of StorIQ.

How close are retailers to having one view of activity across their business, driven by what the customer wants and does? The answer will vary from company to company, but I suspect the answer for most will be 'closer online than we are in the store'.

While technology is becoming an increasingly important part of how retail runs its omnichannel operations, ecommerce is still ahead in terms of making use of solutions. Most businesses are doing some form of data analysis to tailor digital shopping experiences, for example, but how many retail teams have a complete grip on what their stores look like – that is to say the 'real world' customer experience?

There are, however, some progressive retailers that are taking the lessons being learned online, and using them to better the store experience. What's interesting in many of their cases is that, rather than focusing on technology shaping the end customer experience per se, they are using new mobile technology to improve bricks-and-mortar from the inside out.

One example of this is in the consistency of digital and physical offerings. At present, ecommerce teams can put a new collection or promotion live at the press of a button, and they just have to do it in one place with the ability to tweak it instantly. Yet, for that same update to be rolled out across the store network, each store manager has to interpret the guidelines and install the point of sale in the context of their own store floor plan, creating issues of compliance and consistency of delivery.
This is because each individual store is having to interpret a multitude of communications from operations, marketing, merchandising and other central parts of the business, and these tend to be provided in a 'mish-mash' of emails, presentations, diagrams, images and printouts. To make matters worse, reviewing this can take two weeks, or more, creating a disconnect for the customer, as they may see an item or deal online and go into the store to make a purchase – only to find it isn't available offline.

Naturally, it's always going to take longer to implement changes in the store environment than ecommerce, but some retailers have been using retail technology to speed up the deployment and verification process. Another area in which technology has pioneered how online supports bricks-and-mortar development is through increasing productivity. A rising number of retailers are breaking down inter-departmental barriers at the top of the business – House of Fraser is the most prominent example of this – meaning store operations can feel quite segmented in comparison.

Bringing handheld technology into the store environment opens the door for sales associates to serve the customer in a more informed, knowledgeable manner. It's a win-win situation all round: HQ have greater control over how their strategies are implemented, stores have the tools to enhance performance, and have access to data that can tailor customer experiences.

The key lesson here is that customer-centric change starts from within. Online retail technology has very much been focussed on creating intuitive journeys, rather than impressing online shoppers with fancy effects at the front end. In order for bricks-and-mortar to enjoy the same tech-driven success, we as an industry need to look away from the 'bells and whistles' – the iBeacons, electronic shelf labels and so forth – for now, and instead focus on getting store operations truly geared around customer expectations.

Peter Wake is the founder of StorIQ, a technology start-up bringing the benefits of online retail practices across to bricks and mortar premises.

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