How does physical retail tackle the “technology” question when it comes to improving customer experience?

Quoting Eric Ries, entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup, “success is not delivering a feature, it is learning how to solve the customer’s problem”. It would be legitimate to think that with the advent of the digital age, retailers found a wide playground to work on ways to enhance customer experience. There have been many successful tests, but also and probably more and often less publicised, tests and fails with technology.

Amazon is by far the most successful New Retail example as it has been able to redefine the notion of convenience and set new standards for customers. It now owns the majority of the online shopping market and yet, nothing really predisposed it would. The question one could be tempted to ask is why other retailers refrained from developing their own digital capabilities for so long?

Our take on the question is that change inevitably requires time. Retail is essentially about selling products. Described by many as the oldest profession in the world, Retail has been adapting around our lifestyles and habits. While hucksters could be seen in every corner centuries ago, pure players embraced the age of digital disruption and are sitting in a comfortable position today. Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have been focusing on trading instead. By the time they were able to fathom e-commerce, things had already accelerated. Today, many are still unable to understand how online and offline can work in complementarity. In their defense, what makes it even it more difficult is that, on one hand, online has expanded from e-shops to social networks, voice devices, marketplaces inter alia other mediums, and on the other, offline is constantly transforming with new concepts like experiential shopping and popup stores for instance. Keeping their heads around everything to offer the best customer experience cannot be an easy task – particularly when their businesses are, in most cases still, organised according to an older configuration with online on one side and physical points of sale on the other.

According to Chris Browne, former Global Retail Director at Ted Baker, “the World has gone Online and Covid has accelerated that trend, perhaps bringing the world 10 years closer to the Future that it would otherwise have been”. He believes that “so much of the online growth we have seen was inevitable as the World became digitally enabled with more sophisticated tech in the hands of consumers than ever before”. Chris goes on saying that, “the focus however has been on efficiency and convenience and less on experience”. According to him, “the Online shopping experience has failed to match up to the best physical experience. Chris, who always willingly admits his obsession for new technology, believes “there is a huge opportunity to solve many of Onlines intrinsic shortcomings with an enhanced experience in physical spaces”. 

When it comes to combining physical retail and technology, some examples according to Chris would be “stocking less stores or displaying stock only through digital terminals to show videos and content”. Those terminals should also be able to retrieve product information and proceed to payment and shipping for orders. 

Chris elaborates on his frustration about the terms omni or multi Channel as he believes “brands should see the Customer as the channel and the method of getting the product to them should be incidental”. 

To the question, what does the customer want? Chris is categorical, it is “not technology” but a “Unified experience” when shopping and buying. The key according to him is that “the ‘standard and quality’ of that experience should remain at the same high level whichever way the customer chooses to interact with a brand”. 

Relying on technology to make the buying process easier would enable brick-and-mortar retailers to focus on the shopping experience and offer the best experience to their customers. The challenge lies into having the digital improvements seamlessly embedded in the physical network.
The main point according to Chris, “is to be bold and brave and embrace the exciting Future of commerce”. His advice to business leaders who are looking into transforming their retail businesses is, “take off the blindfolds and see a more exciting vision of what is possible and crucially meet more of those companies who are looking to solve your Future problems”.