This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Why do some online shoppers click on a t-shirt, spend a long time looking at it, but leave the retailer’s website empty-handed? Is it because the t-shirt is too expensive? Is there a low-quality product image and insufficient information to make an informed decision? Or is the check-out process too long and complicated?
Online activewear retailer Fabletics has come up with a unique way to answer these questions: opening more than 24 physical stores across the US equipped with devices connected to Microsoft Azure to track how customers interact with their products in stores.
“By using ‘brick mining’, Fabletics can get clearer insights into why certain products are not selling – one particular t-shirt might be tried on frequently, but never purchased, suggesting that there’s a problem with the sizing or feel of the fabric,” says Cath Brands, director of Global Industry Marketing for Retail and Consumer Goods at Microsoft. “Fabletics merges online and in-store data to adjust its product portfolio, inventories and customer services to offer a truly personalised experience for those who shop in the digital and physical stores.”
Defining the perfect customer experience is a critical step for retailers like Fabletics if they want to differentiate their brand from the competition and achieve ongoing success – regardless of whether they operate e-commerce sites, physical stores or both.
“The ‘perfect’ shopping journey is different for everyone, but all consumers expect it to be intuitive, seamless and frustration-free,” notes Brands. “If a retailer has both online and physical stores, they must be fully connected so that customers have a consistent experience as they move between channels.”
The key to creating standout customer experiences, claims Brands, is to establish a ‘golden record’ of every customer to truly understand their needs and preferences. “If retailers have no idea what drives customers to visit their online or physical stores, what convinces them to purchase items or what ultimately converts them into long-standing brand lovers, how can they ever create the perfect shopping experiences?” she asks.
Microsoft’s Retail Trends Playbook 2020 suggests that retailers focus on four key pillars to achieve this: know your customers; empower your employees; deliver an intelligent supply chain; and reimagine retail.
“Retailers should evaluate sales data to see what factors cause troughs in sales and identify what common denominators make their best customers shop with the brand, so that they can pinpoint which services to optimise,” says Brands. “Once they truly understand what motivates their customers to buy from their brand, retailers can determine which tools, technologies and best practices will enable them to create the types of product catalogues, inventories, in-store services, delivery and collection options, and marketing strategies that will satisfy their customers.”
Retailers must also empower employees with these tools.
“Employees are the retailer’s brand ambassadors – they’re the ones on the front line who can make or break a customer experience, so it’s crucial that they have access to a holistic view of each customer and information about new stock, promotions and more at their fingertips,” explains Brands. “Giving employees handheld devices with access to customer and business insights will enable them to complete daily tasks quickly, instantly answer customers’ questions and help consumers to find products in store. All of this increases job satisfaction and when employees are happy, they’re more invested in going above and beyond for the customers, which will ultimately drive sales and brand loyalty.”
Developing an intelligent supply chain is the next vital step in creating the customer experience. “First, retailers must look at what is popular with their customers and current market trends to put together the optimal product portfolio and inventory,” says Brands. “Next, they must explore how they can use intelligent technologies to procure these products and get them to the stores or the customers’ doors quickly.”
Once retailers have these three elements in place, they have the foundation to build the innovations that will empower them to reimagine the shopping experience. This is where Microsoft and its partners can help.
“Trying to understand technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and machine learning (ML) can be overwhelming for retailers, but we can help them find the right tools to unlock the power of data and then develop the services that will enable them to serve their customers and employees in the best possible way,” comments Brands. “Our ‘One Microsoft’ approach means we have tools that can tackle all the biggest retail challenges. For example, we have Office 365 tools to boost productivity and collaboration, Dynamics 365 for Retail, Microsoft Advertising for effective marketing campaigns, and the Microsoft Azure cloud with its ancillary AI and ML products for capturing and analysing data. Plus, we collaborate with hundreds of thousands of incredible partners globally who build specialised industry-specific products on top of Microsoft platforms.”
Major retailers are already using these technologies to redefine the shopping experience. The resultant seismic changes in the shopping experience are making it an exciting time for Microsoft and its partners to be at the intersection of retail and technology, says Brands.
“Customers’ needs, expectations and behaviour have changed drastically over the past 10 years and it is now these consumers, not the retailers, who are defining what constitutes the perfect customer experience,” she adds. “Retailers are facing very real challenges, but new tools like AI and ML are providing them with an exciting opportunity to think outside the box and transform the shopping journey in a way that surprises and delights both their loyal and potential customers.”
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