Like their global counterparts, New Zealand retailers are accelerating their digital agendas to keep customers engaged and loyal. Noel Leeming, a 76-store subsidiary of the Warehouse Group, is at the forefront of the move from in-store to online shopping, accelerated greatly by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.\nThe consumer electronics and appliance retailer originally developed its digital assistant Nola as an in-store customer service tool, but then pivoted to making it an online chatbot when the first lockdown took place in March 2020. This means the business can handle changes in lockdown levels, as was demonstrated when Auckland was recently placed into Level 3 lockdown.\n[ Keep up on the latest thought leadership, insights, how-to, and analysis on IT through CIO\u2019s newsletters. ]\nDylan Weymouth, business operations lead at the Warehouse Group, says Noel Leeming\u2019s Nola digital assistant is a key part of its plans to deliver a multi-channel experience. \u201cIn retail today, tolerance for poor service is lower than it\u2019s ever been. Customers expect things to be simple and easy; otherwise, you\u2019re at risk of losing them. For me, utopia is getting to a point where we deliver frictionless shopping, making it so easy to interact with us whether on the web, instore or on an app,\u201d he says.\nNola\u2019s origins in the physical store\nPartnering with local firms Ambit AI and UneeQ Digital Humans, the concept for Nola began in 2019 as an in-store feature at Noel Leeming\u2019s signature store in Newmarket, Auckland. Noel Leeming wanted to create a \u2018wow\u2019 experience for customers, conveying a forward-thinking brand but also delivering useful information.\nPlaced at the entrance to the store and aided with a microphone, Nola asks how it can help, and customers respond by asking for product availability, store location, opening hours and more. During the conversation, Nola appears to be listening, leaning in slightly and looking interested. Like a good trainee team member, Nola refers to in-store staff if it can\u2019t help with more detailed requests. \u201cTeam members are alerted via a mobile app when, after talking with Nola first, customers needed more specialised help\u201d, says Weymouth.\n\u201cWe wanted our customers front and centre with Nola as they arrived, interacting with the human-friendly tech as they soaked in the new store. At opening, Nola was \u2018going off\u2019\u2014the best day saw over 3,000 interactions and within a few months she had posed for nearly 3,000 selfies with customers,\u201d Weymouth says. \u201cNola quickly reached 100,000 in-store interactions\u2014she was an immediate hit\u201d.\nThe pandemic put Nola out of work\u2014until it was moved online\nWhen the COVID-19 pandemic struck, stores closed in response to the initial nationwide lockdown, leaving Nola momentarily out of a job. The website and call centre \u201cwent ballistic\u201d with customer interactions, Weymouth says.\nTo pivot Nola to where customers needed it the most, Noel Leeming worked with partner Ambit AI to rapidly put Nola online. \u201cWe spun this up in two weeks to help with the surge in online demand. Online, Nola was doing 1,000 customer interactions per day, giving customers a direct, efficient route to what they needed. Soon after going live, we enabled \u2018chat handover\u2019, with Nola referring customers to human agents to help with product availability, sales and services. This transfer of queries to human agents kept our customers engaged during the process, which also kept our staff busy adding value even when stores were closed. It was a win-win\u201d, Weymouth recalls.\n\u201cNola serviced three times as many queries daily than the week before the August 2020 resurgence lockdown. We were stoked to offer customers this channel from the get-go. While Nola was busy fronting customer queries, staff who had been rostered in stores were instead able to focus on online deliveries and fulfilling our one-hour Click&Collect service. They also helped with the customer care centre, inventory checks and stocktakes\u201d, Weymouth says.\nNext up: Noel Leeming will soon add the ability for customers to check their order status through Nola, he says.\nWhat CIOs can learn from the Nola experience\nCiOs considering deployment of their own digital assistant should keep the following lessons from Nola\u2019s journey in mind.\nFind the right partners, adapting with them as the business need changes. Tim Warren, CEO of Ambit AI, says, \u201cThe partnership brought together three parties, each with specific expertise. Together we were able to find innovative ways of meeting Noel Leeming\u2019s customers\u2019 needs\u201d. In tough times, having the right partners becomes even more important. During the lockdown, the platform was adapted, as was the partnership, to deliver outcomes more attuned to the needs of customers shopping from home.\nROI comes from a focus on the holistic customer experience, not just on the technology. From the start, Nola\u2019s value was delivered as an important part of a wider customer experience strategy comprised of the physical store, a service-oriented culture of team working, integrated product information, and ready product availability supported by smart operational processes. Nola\u2019s success was helped by combining each of these elements.\nBe prepared to pivot early and often, sensing and responding to changing needs. Nola\u2019s conversational flows were altered in the first 24 hours of deployment, learning from early interactions with customers. This agility hasn\u2019t stopped, with the \u2018check my order status\u2019 feature soon to be added and conversational flows being further enriched as Nola learns more about what customers want. Nola\u2019s value increases with every insight-driven enhancement.\nPeter Johnston does business strategy, transformation and leadership innovation based on his experiences in business consulting globally. Johnston launched and led IBM iX in New Zealand, one of the world\u2019s largest digital consulting agencies.