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Digital Transformation

#NRF16: Uncover What Customers Value, Deliver Reliable Experience

shutterstock_337108367_350Focus on what your customer wants, for they are all that truly matters. But let’s come back to that.

Spending time at the National Retail Federation’s 2016 annual convention meant exposure to a staggering collection of gadgetry, hardware, technology, and an impressive gathering of some of the retail industry’s greatest thought leaders. Whether the goal of the NRF attendees was to come away with new ways to improve operational efficiency, leverage technology to connect to their customers, or gain insight from their peers, everyone can agree that the primary mission is to enhance buyer’s experience with their store and brand. That never changes.

Herein lies the challenge that I will present to you. In the past six months, how often have you read or heard of retailers driving one or more of the following key initiatives?

  • Apps to enable mobile commerce
  • Marketing and remarketing initiatives to push relevant offers to targets via mobile and online
  • Virtual dressing rooms or similar in-store product technology
  • Reaching Millennials through branding and technology enablement
  • Buying online with in-store pickup
  • Providing self-service kiosks or check outs

As technology evolves, so does your customers’ expectation for convenience, accuracy, speed, and an elegant shopping interaction with your store. We know this intuitively since, as consumers ourselves, we serve as our own personal control group. The list above is likely familiar to you because it contains many of the consistent messages in our industry. Countless articles, white papers, webinars, and trade show sessions are developed and presented around these critical initiatives, often including those familiar buzzwords such as omnichannel, digital transformation, and the proverbial nod to our ongoing fascination with reaching the Millennial generation. The anxiety of how to keep up and how best to advance your customer’s experience can be debilitating as you struggle with balancing technology with operations and critical data integrations. So what do you do?

While seemingly simple, focus on what your customer wants as opposed to what the industry tells you all customers want.  The collective noise of the industry repetitively touting advances and innovation provides valuable insight and inspiration, but it should not be a self-fulfilling roadmap. Ask yourself how your initiative truly enhances your customers’ buying experience and set aside the allure of technology for technology’s sake. For example, self-checkout can be a great option for many shoppers with a few items and no fear. On the other hand, forcing customers to self-checkout in a retail environment where they would prefer human interaction and full service could be a big mistake.

I am not particularly a fan of Starbucks coffee…except, of course, on any given day when I find myself a guest in a random city and need a coffee fix. In that situation, they have enabled me beyond my expectations, creating a loyalty where none truly exists. I know that I can open their app and see pins of the nearest locations, activating directions if necessary.  The coffee itself is a known entity, so I have no angst around product inconsistency or unavailability. The app has its own mobile wallet, rewarding me with points toward an eventual free cup. In addition to regular special offers, Starbucks also promotes various apps that may be of interest to their customers. The apps are free, an unexpected value add from a company that is focused on food and beverage. On my birthday, my apps sends me well wishes and activates a coupon for a free drink of my choice. All of the above is wrapped into a reliable, intuitive, and genuinely valuable app. Starbucks clearly focused on what their customers want and delivered.

In contrast, a well-known big box retailer recognized that their customers would like to have the ability to buy a product online and pick it up at any of their locations. Surveying my one-man consumer internal control group, I agree that this is a good move and an opportunity to productively bridge online with brick and mortar. That is, until I arrive at the store to pick up the product and learn that they do not have it.  Their incorrect inventory led us all to believe the product was available, until their associates realized the truth. Sensing my disappointment (and likely visible irritation), I am offered a better model for no extra cost. This is an excellent customer service coup as I leave the store with a smile, but at what cost? Margin dollars, for certain. But also their customer’s apprehension with using this service again, particularly when the associate for some reason reveals that the problem is not uncommon. Is this service something their customers want?  Absolutely. Were they ready and capable of properly delivering? Absolutely not.

I think it is safe to assume that there is no shortage of similar cautionary tales extending across various customer-facing initiatives. Technology is hard, especially when it is expected to marry to inadequate or inefficient back-end systems or processes. Once you have uncovered what your customers truly value, your job is to ensure that your internal teams and any solution partners are being honest with themselves about the ability to reliably deliver the technology. Your customers’ positive experience and subsequent loyalty depends on it.

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