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Connecting customers and retail operations

Friday August 31 2012

The summer 2012 issue of Retail Technology featured its customary annual overview of the retail communications marketplace in retail

Retailers have traditionally broken down communications technologies into three areas: telecoms in retail, which includes specialist voice-directed systems, voice-over internet protocol (VoIP), mobile telephony and broadband; retail networking, such as large and wide area networks (LANs and WANs) and virtual private networks (VPNs), as well as security software and systems; and digital and multimedia instore and e-commerce customer communications.

Operational comms and networking convergence

Mark Russell, director of operations for UK and Ireland at unified communications vendor Swyx, which counts YO! Sushi and Agent Provocateur among its retail clients, told Retail Technology: “Everything is now IP-based from the PDQ machines to the point of sale. So it makes perfect sense for the communications system to work on the same infrastructure. Because retail outlets are typically operating across multiple sites, it’s possible to realise some really attractive savings in terms of running and support costs across multiple telephone extensions and you can even pop-up stores without additional expenditure.”

Colin Mann, Aastra UK & Ireland marketing manager, also highlighted this convergence trend. “As the economic climate remains turbulent, retailers will be looking for innovative ways to enhance customer experience and drive loyalty. In a competitive marketplace, customers are likely to remember and return to a retail establishment that has exceeded their expectations.”

Mann cited unified communications, including out-of-hours messaging and voice response systems for self-service, as increasingly popular technologies in terms of retail adoption. Multimedia contact centre capabilities and mobile shop or warehouse systems could be used to streamline supply chain processes and store operations, he added.

Communicating with customers instore

Tom Downes, founder and chief executive of specialist provider of wireless headset communications systems Quail Digital, said customer service and security were two strong recurring themes among retailers. He said a visible security communications system can bring widespread benefits and help in reducing retail theft by up to a quarter, adding that a before and after audit carried out on 120 stores using a wireless headset system revealed that stock loss was reduced by 25%.

Downes added: “Grocery retailers that have adopted our system have seen substantial benefits in terms of time and cost saving, improved customer service and efficiency. Analysis in one retail chain showed response times to customer queries were reduced by 75% after installation of the QD Retail system.”

And he said that, in more recent years, with the rapid growth of the online marketplace, Quail has seen home and fashion retailers and DIY stores adopting a similarmindset to that of the supermarket giants: “Linking the system to the checkout area also helps to reduce waiting time for managing queries, while strategically placed call buttons also linked into the system mean that customers can summon help at will, quickly and efficiently.”

Communicating with customers remotely

But alongside updating existing internal and customer-facing communications to cope with growing multichannel developments, retailers are failing to high enough levels of customer service online.

For example, a survey of more than 2,000 consumers and businesses across Britain, commissioned by communication software provider Netop, found that just over half (52%) thought live chat would speed up response times. A similar amount (54%) felt live chat could eliminate any issues due to strong regional or foreign accents at the call centre, despite the fact that just 7% of British companies actually offer an online chat facility on their websites today.

Neil Humphries is IT and web marketing manager at UK watchmaker Accurist, which uses live chat software to handle customer support inquiries. He said: “The live chat tool helps us resolve most issues quickly and easily, and in a very personal way. For any business or brand that relies on the relationship it has with its customers, live chat should become a key part of the customer experience equation.”

This story first ran as the introduction to the 'Retail Communications' feature of the July/August 2012 issue of Retail Technology magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition or register for the free e-version.