Q: I am looking to make changes to my store technology. I have nine retail stores that are on a 12-year-old system and I have an e-commerce site that runs separate from my retail stores. With all I see and hear about omni and multi-channel, what do you suggest as a starting point to use technology to help get closer to the customer? Something that I can have so that my staff  can know the customer better and keep them returning. It’s a tough environment for a retailer with the web competition and I want to make smart investments to stay relevant.

Michael Dattoma: More than ever, the store and web must offer an experience to the customer with the ability to engage them in ways that separates you from the competition. There are many ways that retailers are doing this to offer a unique experience that creates a “wow” factor, that make a customer feel valued, entertained, listened to, serviced, and drives revenue while making loyal customers.

There are many paths that customers are taking to your door, either by physically visiting your store or through e-commerce and mobile, and the experience that those customers receive must be consistent across all your channels. Your store cannot operate in silos where you know the customer at the store, but have no idea who they are online. You have to know their preferences, their history, loyalty points, gift card balances, when the shop on the web. The customer expects to be treated consistently across all platforms.

So much of what we are discussing, in terms of creating that customer experience, is done by leveraging technology. It used to be that retail technology was just about controlling your inventory, have a CRM that tracks your customer purchases and you were done. But today’s retail environment, when there are multiple channels, when you customer is now “universal,” where they are mobile and on the web, and need to be the center point of your business, that is not enough. In this environment you need a central customer record, a central inventory record that every channel can feed from, where they function as a central hub of your operation. When that is accomplished, and you can then provide real time information on customers and inventory across all channels, then you have the foundation that allows a powerful “customer experience” to be unleashed.

Once you have that fundamental architecture in place then providing that rich customer experience becomes far easier. The customer can travel to the store, the web, mobile, and everything about that customer is known. Recommendations can be made to them, offers and promotions can be sent to them based on past shopping experience and value to the business. They can use loyalty and gift card balances across all channels, they can buy online and pick up at the store, buy online and return to the store, and all of it is easily managed because all of the data is real-time and shared.

With this foundation in place you can have sales associates on the floor engaging customer with iPads with the ability to see real time inventory, customer buying history and view up-sell suggestions based on those purchases. You can also view product catalogs, purchase and deliver an item from another location if it is not in stock, and recall everything and every preference for that customer. This allows you to do what Jack Mitchell of Mitchell’s and Richards famously said, “Hug your customers.” Technology, coupled with smart retailing, and great sales associates who leverage it, allows you to bring a memorable customer experience to life across all channels and “Hug” with greater impact.

A customer that bought an item on the web can have it waiting for them at the store to try on, with the offer of their favorite music and drink while they are in the dressing room. They can be given an experience while in the dressing room like no other. One luxury retailer who is taking the customer experience to another level is Rebecca Minkoff. Rebecca’s “store of the future” offers a mind blowing interactive digital experience coupled with the human touch. Dressing rooms with interactive mirrors where customers can change sizes, see what pairs well with items already selected, and receive emails and follows-ups on items that were tried on but not purchased that day. According to Fortune magazine, these technologies have helped Rebecca Minkoff increase year over year sales by 50 percent. That is stunning and drives home the importance of delivering a memorable customer experience.

You may not be ready to take the leaps to deliver your own “store of the future” but you can certainly start to build the foundation that will allow you to deliver a customer experience best suited to your own style and store culture. The important thing is to not let inertia set it, but step-by-step put the technology pieces in place that will allow you to survive and thrive.

If you would like more information on innovative retail technologies and how to leverage some of the tools discussed, please contact Michael Dattoma at Michael@retailmerchantservices.com

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