by Fatima Zada

Challenges and opportunities for CIOs in retail – Harvey Nichols Director of Technology and Innovation Fatima Zada writes that while technology changes, the core retail proposition remains the same

Apr 10, 2017
IT StrategyRetail Industry

Trying to figure out how to continue growing while remaining relevant among the competition is the main challenge in today’s retail environment. Two decades ago retail was much more simple – there were a handful of known brands from where consumers could buy goods and services from physical stores made of bricks and mortar. Each retailer had their own set of loyal customers who would know where to go for the product they were looking for. Although e-commerce existed it hadn’t yet taken off to the extent it has today so again the competition provided consumers a relevant choice.

We are now in a period where there are many different e-commerce brands, commerce apps, and social media platforms with click-to-buy options that the consumer can be somewhat confused and often put off by too much choice. This has had an effect on the retailers too as they are trying to remain at the front of the consumer’s mind; but with too much choice out there you often forget the brands that you once used to frequent. Alongside this consumer behaviours are also changing with a shift to mobile and online for research and cost comparison. This has had an effect on physical stores. Add on the macro economic climate and financial challenges in the global world, retail is trying to find its feet again.

Many companies are bringing out loyalty programmes thinking this is enough to set them apart, others are using technology to provide in store and online experiences to differentiate them. However we must remember one thing – retail is simple. All the consumer wants is product and will find the easiest, cheapest way to buy it. It is as simple as that and should not be complicated with unnecessary hurdles or gimmicks that will get in their way.

Where technology can help is the common themes that we have been speaking about in the industry for years:

1. Know your customer –Customers want to feel special and that you know them. They expect you to have a 360-degree view of every touchpoint they have engaged with you on. If they call customer service they don’t expect to be asked a million questions before they get to discuss their query with you. You should have all the information to hand to offer a true any touchpoint experience – I do not like to use the word omnichannel it has been abused and lost much of its meaning.

2. Personalise but don’t take this too far –Companies feel that personalising means recommending products based on the customer’s past transactions without considering their lifestyle, their family environment, without knowing their preferences. Bearing in mind there are some customers that are willing to share their information and some that want to remain private. The common mistake is when you recommend products based on a gift they purchased when the item wasn’t even for them. Back to retail being simple and the point above – know your customer!

3. Provide options –Assume each customer is as unique as their DNA. What I mean by that is don’t put consumers in demographic brackets. We assume that all generation Z want the same thing, all 30- or 40-year-olds purchase in the same way, all men buy differently to women, and so on. In the majority of cases you may use analytics to derive these trends but don’t consequently provide a solution that fits that box. This also relates to the first point of knowing your customer but offer the options: an 18-year-old who wants to buy their first lipstick might want the exact same experience as a 50-year-old man looking to buy a gift. Let them choose their purchasing channel, their time to shop, the device to research on, how they want the product wrapped, how to pay and when they want to pick it up or be sent to them. Think about every choice a customer wants and start providing them different experiences. In turn the insight you will get will allow you to understand exactly who your consumers are allowing the first to points to be executed seamlessly.

While retail has been through a rapid period of change and innovation it is important to remember that at its core it remains a simple proposition around removing the barriers between consumers and the goods they want to procure. In many ways the more things change the more they stay the same, or as they say in my first language French: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”