What’s the key to success in the Retail sector?

I joined Exponential-e at a recent roundtable event for the retail sector, enjoying an evening of insightful and enlightening conversation. It was interesting to see how one group of IT professionals within the retail sector believed one thing, whilst another thought exactly the opposite. Clearly proving there is no single magic formula for retail success.

Whilst one group would think that Amazon was everything to everyone, another realised that Argos, as different as it is similar, is also growing and that we’re seeing investment into new retail space and shopping centres reinventing themselves.

What was clear is that everyone in the room agreed on the need for online and offline to merge more effectively.

Mobile payments are not all figured out yet

When we turned our discussion to mobile payments, it was clear that there is no set standard yet. ApplePay and AndroidPay were both widely discussed, but clearly were still a niche solution to a vexing problem. The problem it seems is not one to be solved simply by retail, but perhaps by a broader interworking between retailers and banking. It was interesting to see the tremendous variety of mobile payment solutions that were offered up by the room, with no one clear consensus on what’s best.

What did become clear, when we all took our turn thinking as consumers, is that our biggest reluctance to adopt some new form of payment is actually risk. We were all keenly aware of the booming cyber-crime industry that surrounds digital, and were all keen to avoid becoming a victim of this. In some ways we understand that our contactless debit cards are riskier than any of the new digital options, as they can be tapped away £30 a time for hours on end before we even notice they’re missing and disable them. Still, it seems that the tactile feel of having a form of payment physically present in our hands is still somehow comforting.

Biometrics aren’t so bad

When it came to how we could secure mobile payments, it seems that the idea of biometrics, once the “no-go zone” of personal information and privacy, may have had seen a new day. With the advent of smartphones which lock and unlock using finger-prints, the idea of a finger-print ID no longer seems that socially unpalatable. It may well be that some form of biometrics is the best way for shops and retailers to next envision loyalty cards and customer tracking systems. Rather than giving the customer yet another thing to carry about, perhaps simply tying into their biometrics and linking this with an online account is the better way to both facilitate payments, and manage customer loyalty programs.

One group had the brilliant idea of a shop being able to link up your online browsing history (of their online store) with your arrival in a physical store. By beaconing to a shopping app installed on your phone, then tying this back to your online account – you would enable the store and app combo to intelligently direct the shopper to those things they are interested in, based on their online browsing history. Then perhaps at the till, via a fingerprint reader, they could use the online stored payment options to pay for physical purchases without needing to present any form of payment at all in store.

To be sure, there was a total agreement that we’re all carrying too many cards today. The idea of carrying one “smart card” appealed to many, and this card could itself be secured with an inexpensive fingerprint reader as many modern smart phones are, and would offer an alternative to an entirely app-driven ecosystem. In any case, the clear answer is to help customers create and manage online profiles in the cloud that can be used online and in store; secured via a better means than a name and password. Biometrics? Quite possibly!

So, what’s the conclusion?

At the end of the night it was clear to see that we all understood there were three key take-aways:

  1. We all need to gather a LOT more data – we won’t know which data is useful until we’ve gathered it for a while, but thankfully storage and network are cheaper now than ever before
  2. We need to continue to cater for a wide range of customers; we can’t all go cashless and jump onto ApplePay because we would be excluding a huge number of users – but equally we can’t ignore new payment technologies either. We need integration.
  3. We need to think more about the experience we offer both online and in store. They should work in harmony with each other, without trying to compete or supplant the other.

Beacon and wireless technologies are important, they’ll allow us to better learn and understand what’s happening in our physical stores. By combining this with an online integrated analytical view of our customers’ behaviors and preferences, we’ll be better positioned to improve their experience and, hopefully increase sales.

Consumers are more connected, more social and more affected by trends than ever before. We need to optimise the level of choice presented in-store to capitalise on this and limit inappropriate stocking and re-stocking. Variety can be had online, in store should be focused on the mass-market, the next hot thing, those few items that are sure to sell. We can do this by tapping into our customers’ social networks, learning to follow what they’re watching on social media and Pinterest and then adapting our own promotions to suit.

Finally, there’s a role for the retails to take charge of some of these social trends and drive them. There’s nothing stopping the retailer from merchandising through Pintrest and Instagram.

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