The customer comes first

While 2018 is gearing up to be THE year of technology in retail, Stuart Parker, category director for Retail Marketing, urges retailers not to forget the customer experience

From virtual reality to voice recognition, modern technology is changing the world at an unprecedented speed. Unsurprisingly, this has transcended into the retail industry with the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. 
In fact, 2018 is predicted to be the year that technology revolutionises the sector; a claim that drives intrigue about the future of the traditional bricks and mortar sales channel. 
The danger here is that retailers shine a laser sharp focus on the juggernaut of technology and forget all about the valuable in-store customer experience. Now that customers have more choices and information at their disposal than ever before, customer experience is paramount to a business's success. 
Is this the year technology takes over? 
The increasingly digital world with its extreme convenience brings many benefits to the consumer. As a result, retailers are embracing big data and smart analytics in a big way to drive a seamless user experience. The likes of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) are also being implemented to drive more intelligent marketing approaches. 
The risk here is that with the focus on technology, are retailers struggling to truly understand their customers, their needs and expectations? Technology should not replace customer satisfaction, instead it should enhance it. With this considered, if businesses ignore the importance of a positive customer experience then they can be missing out on differentiating themselves and maximising their success. 
According to Forrester's Customer Experience Index, a third of companies will see declines in customer experience performance this year, as consumers' expectations will outpace companies' ability to deliver meaningful experiences. Yet, building relationships with customers in-store is not high on the priorities list for large retailers such as Tesco, who have recently announced major job cuts, removing hundreds of customer experience and store manager roles. 
The opportunity for bricks and mortar stores 
What's unique about customer experience in retail? People. According to the PWC 2017 Total Retail Global survey, 59% of shoppers find that human contact is the most important part of the in-store experience. There is a clear way for brands to differentiate here in terms of creating new levels of customer engagement. 
As well as keeping customers happy, providing a compelling shopping experience can have a major impact on purchases.
According to a Walker study, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key differentiator by 2020, and 86% of consumers will pay more for a better experience. It is also an amazing way to promote a brand through word-of-mouth awareness. A recent study in the Huffington Post even found that 72% of consumers will share a positive experience with 6 or more people. This shows that not only is excellent customer service a great way to build a strong brand identity, it's also hugely profitable. 
Stores will always be a key retailer strategy and an important touch point along the journey to a sale. For retailers competing in ever fiercer markets, how they differentiate themselves to stand out from the crowd, let alone win the hearts and minds of consumers, is going to be the main contributing factor to success. 
The merging of humans and technology 
The challenge in serving the modern customer therefore lies in getting the right balance between technology and personal interaction. After all, would you feel engaged to a brand if its products were good, but it had no interest in addressing and understanding your needs as a customer? 
Essentially, the most straight-forward secret to providing an excellent customer experience revolves around the role of in-store staff. It may sound obvious, but having staff with an exceptionally friendly demeanour and a far-reaching knowledge of what they are selling is the easiest way to ensure that customers make a purchase. It instils a sense of confidence and trust, and by training your staff properly, you will stand out from your competitors. 
Secondly, a great way to engage with customers, while showcasing a product, is to put them on display. This will create an interactive environment, where this transparency will allow the customer a first-hand look at what they're purchasing, allowing them to touch and feel the product. 
Greater guidance 
Of course, technology can still play a role in the in-store customer experience, especially when we look at personalising the customer journey. For example, by creating an app designed to be used in-store, customers can be offered additional information through their devices. 
This will provide a more enjoyable in-store experience, as well as greater guidance of the products on show. Technology can also be used to reward customer loyalty by recording the number of store visits and in return sending thank you rewards and promotions. 
Equipping sales staff with tablets enables them to approach customers directly on the shop floor and answer questions and queries there and then, ultimately providing a greater personalised shopping experience. Stores without the right levels of brand ambassadors will find that customers will instead gather at till points which impedes customer flow and may reduce their overall satisfaction. 
By giving consumers the care and a personalised service, they feel valued and therefore will be far more engaged with the brand and product. 
Unlocking the greatest differentiator of 2018 
Stores can't simply sell products, they must sell the experience. The amount of choice on the market is both a benefit to consumers and a minefield. This is especially true when you look at the high-end technology market where customers can often feel overwhelmed by the choice of similar products available. 
Customers still yearn for the human touch and despite these exciting technological advances, what wins their hearts and minds is a personalised experience that evokes strong feelings. By compelling a customer to a brand in this way, the result is not only a smooth, superior service, but also increased loyalty and sales revenue in the long-run. 
So, while we should continue to look forward and revel in the vision of technological innovation, let's never forget the power and importance of human engagement. After all, as much as people love technology's ability to provide quality and convenience, a superior customer experience still lies at the heart of satisfaction and brand loyalty.