Thursday 6th Apr 2017
By Brian Flesk, Head of Retail at Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance
In the future of one-click shopping, self-service checkouts and next-day delivery, the focus of retailers will be on speed and efficiency. The aim won’t be so much to enhance the customer experience as to minimise it. Shopping will become faceless, automated and impersonal. Right?
As new technology gives consumers ever more choice over how and where to shop, good customer service is becoming more important than ever. It’s one natural competitive advantage that traditional retailers have over all the apps and online stores – the chance to offer not only a product, but an experience that is valuable in itself.
It’s not only technology that’s changing, but consumer behaviour too. One trend of recent times is an increasing number of returns, as people buy a range of sizes or variations to try out, keep the one they want, and send back the rest.
Such ‘intentional returns’ may bring extra costs for retailers, but there’s nothing to be gained by resisting changes like this. Surveys consistently show that free and easy returns are one of the main factors attracting customers to high street stores, and making it harder will simply push them away.
Instead, shops should embrace changes like this, adapt to mitigate the costs, and treat them as opportunities rather than irritations. After all, a person returning an item is a potential customer. The better they’re treated, the more likely they are to make extra purchases – and come back for more.
Make it easy to pay
Another thing that customers increasingly expect is a quick and easy ride through the checkout. When they can make a purchase at the tap of a button online, people have little patience for delays at the till. In PwC’s 2017 Total Retail survey, 59% of consumers named ease of checkout – including self-service and staff who can take payment without going to the till – as an important feature of the shopping experience.
Of course, recent improvements such as contactless credit cards and digital wallets have sped things up for many. But retailers should also be looking for new ways – tech-based and otherwise – to take the hassle out of paying. As the survey data shows, it’s an area that can have a major effect on the customer experience.
That includes offering a range of payment options, including retail credit at the point of sale. The credit option should be clear and straightforward – especially as almost half of customers who use it say they might walk away from a sale if credit isn’t available, according to research by Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance. 50% said the availability of finance is ‘very important’ in their decision to make a purchase, while 53% spend more if credit is available. Stores that don’t make credit clearly and easily available risk losing out on big purchases.
The value of knowledgeable staff
What makes the biggest difference to shoppers when they’re in a store? Unsurprisingly, it’s the staff. In that PwC survey, 59% of British consumers named ‘sales associates with a deep knowledge of the product range’ as the most important attribute of their experience.
This is what people are looking for when they step into a store: a level of expertise and advice that they might not be able to find online. And retailers should look to carve out a niche for themselves by providing it. That means keeping their sales force well-informed and up-to-date on the pros and cons of the latest products.
And staff should to be up-to-date with the latest retail tech, too. Whether it’s handheld scanners and self-checkouts in the store, or apps and websites for when they leave, customers often need help making the most of them. These innovations may change the role of in-store staff, but they certainly don’t diminish it.
Use technology to enhance the in-store experience
It’s not just about keeping up with recent developments, though. To thrive, retailers must also pioneer new ones. Some shops already offer apps to guide customers through their aisles – and towards their special offers. These apps not only make the consumer experience smoother and easier, but can also provide retailers with invaluable data on what their customers are looking for.
Things are getting even more futuristic. In America, home furnishers Pottery Barn have launched a new augmented reality app that let’s customers ‘see’ a product in their own home, before they buy it. Just imagine: when buying a bed, as well as testing out the mattress, you’ll soon be able to see how it would look in your bedroom.
Omnichannel shopping requires omnichannel care
Nowadays, retailers know how important it is to give their customers a seamless journey between different channels. From store to website to app, consumers expect the same quality of experience whichever shopping method they use.
And the same goes for customer service. As well as offering omnichannel shopping, retailers should provide omnichannel care. They should show the same responsiveness whether a customer comes into a store with a query, calls a helpline, or simply tweets about it.
Don’t forget the old-fashioned stuff
Amid all the new apps and futuristic tech, it’s vital that retailers don’t lose sight of the importance of good, old-fashioned customer service. Building a good relationship with customers – by treating them courteously and making their in-store experience a pleasant one – is the best way to keep them coming back. Trust and loyalty are still important considerations when consumers choose where to shop, so cultivating both remains as crucial as ever.
The future is nothing for retailers to fear. But it is something to prepare for. The High Street has always been a place where pioneers thrive, and those pioneers are needed still, to find new ways to enhance the consumer experience and grow customer loyalty.
As technological developments put more choice and control in consumers’ hands, stores must do so too. They should embrace innovations that provide customers with more information or that cut checkout times, whilst making the most of their biggest advantage: knowledgeable, friendly staff who can provide a personalised service that adds value to a shopping trip.
Those who believe good customer service won’t matter in the future are wrong. Those who believe High Street retailers can’t thrive are wrong too. They can, and – by following these key principles – they will.
Providing quality customer service
- Embrace change
- Make it easy to pay
- Appreciate the value of knowledgeable staff
- Use technology to enhance the in-store experience
- Provide omnichannel care