Is this the the end for anonymous shopping?

The anonymous shopping experience has had its day. On the back of the success of digital personalisation, retailers are turning their attention to the in-store experience, recognising both the rise in customer expectation and the differentiation personal service can offer.

But what does that experience look like? From individually created recipe ideas and ingredients lists in supermarkets to intuitive, customer inspired fashion recommendations, retailers have the chance to transform the in-store engagement.

In-store experience

Personal shopping is nothing new – it was the way in which everybody shopped fifty years ago. Indeed, customers’ response to an increasingly personal online experience clearly demonstrates a strong demand to move away from the anonymous shopping experience that has dominated for the past few decades.

And this is not just about luxury brands – a personal experience can even apply in that most impersonal of retail environments, the supermarket.

> See also: Avoiding the four pitfalls of customer experience management strategy

Just consider a customer looking for ideas for supper – armed with information about both favourite buys and food allergies, the sales assistant can browse with the consumer, iPad in hand and recommend recipes, provide a list of ingredients, including some on offer, and point the customer directly towards the appropriate aisles. 

Suddenly that frustrating after work search for inspiration that, more often than not, ends in another jar of pesto and pasta, becomes a far more engaging and enjoyable experience – and one that, quite possibly, results in a higher than average spend and a returning customer. Win win for both customer and retailer.

The need to refocus on the in-store experience is becoming pressing. Customers’ expectations of each brand have been transformed by the highly personalised online experience that bears no resemblance to the anonymous in-store experience.

Retailers are also driving customers back in-store, building on multi-channel strategies to offer reserve & collect and click & collect services both in response to customer demand but also in recognition of the powerful opportunity to up- and cross-sell in-store.

Ensuring every part of the in-store experience is a positive one – be it collecting or returning a product bought online, arranging shipment of a product from another store because the store the customer is in has just sold out, or being able to settle a payment and a return transaction with a single swipe of the credit card ­- is an essential component of success and achieving return on investment on these new multi-channel strategies.

Quality experience

The challenge for retailers is that there is no one size fits all approach to creating a personal in-store experience. What works for a luxury goods provider with big margins and a small, select customer base is clearly never going to work in a busy supermarket.

And key to achieving the right model is a recognition of just what the customer wants and, perhaps, an awareness of how bad in-store experiences to date have affected customer attitudes.

The truth is that even those customers not looking for a personal service should be enjoying a better overall experience.

From replacing queues by using shop floor tablet based payment methods to creating seamless, single transaction processes for payments, exchanges, returns and the use of gift vouchers, the traditional frictions that occur within the store can and should be removed.

Building on this improved retail environment by empowering sales assistants to interact with customers in a completely different way is a significant step forward for retailers in every sector.

A fashion retailer’s sales assistant, for example, can use information about a customer’s online shopping habits – including products browsed but not bought – as well as a single view of available stock across the business, to deliver a far more personal shopping experience in-store that can truly engage the consumer.

Customer demand

The contrast is stark: today, most customers rush in the opposite direction at the sight of an approaching sales assistant when track record would suggest any interaction will be painful and unhelpful. Yet there is clear demand for a personal, better experience.

If retailers are to turn this model around, it is essential to understand what customers want from that in-store experience – or rather what each individual customer wants at that specific visit.

This is, clearly, a challenge. While organisations capture and track every single interaction online and can use that information to personalise every experience, the same does not apply in-store.

Some customers will not want a personal shopping experience; others will want one occasionally; some all the time. The model, therefore, has to be customer led.

Retailers cannot encourage sales assistants to pounce on every customer entering the store, however personal the experience may be, but instead must make it attractive for customers to identify themselves to sales assistants.

This model too will vary from retailer to retailer. Not all supermarkets, of course, can ensure every sales assistant can offer a personal shopping experience – not only would that interfere with essential jobs such as restocking shelves but many will not have the skills or desire to deliver such services.

Instead, the main high-street supermarkets will be more likely to opt for a kiosk type experience where customers can ask for help from dedicated advisors.

However, within a luxury store environment, where the majority of customers are likely to want a more personal service, the sales assistant can be more proactive and ask a customer directly.

Cultural change

Given this huge diversity in customer expectations based on any number of factors, from retail environment to time of shop, it is essential for retailers to really consider the way in which personal shopping experiences should be delivered.

Providing sales staff with tools that present instant visibility of customer preferences and stock availability is essential, but it is also just the beginning. Do those people delivering the in-store experience have the right skills? How can the experience reflect the culture of the organisation and deliver consistent, multi-channel brand value?

Empowering sales assistants to provide this personal shopping service creates sales advisors – and not all existing assistants will have the skills to adapt to that role.

> See also: The three digital concepts customer service innovators need to grasp

In addition to identifying and training the right staff, it is important that the service offered also reflects and reinforces the brand value and that staff are incentivised in a way that supports the increasingly multi-channel nature of retail.

Rediscovering retail

Customer expectations have changed radically over the past decade – even the essentially isolated, impersonal online experience has become a powerful, engaging and increasingly personal event. That personalised, relevant and timely experience should now be delivered in-store.

The anonymous in-store shopping experience may have been the norm for the past five decades, but the tide is turning and retailers need urgently to reconsider the quality, relevance and personalisation of that in-store experience. 

Personal shopping is back. It is time for retailers to redefine the role of stores, embrace technological innovation that drives both service enhancements and operating margins, and engineer a cultural shift that will enable staff to reinforce brand value and deliver that personalised service experience across every channel.

Sourced from Craig Sears-Black, Managing Director, Manhattan Associates

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...