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Retailers are often perfectly positioned to utilise the latest tools and technology to provide a unique experience for their customers. However, many may be afraid to experiment with them for a number of reasons; there is the perception that only larger businesses or international franchises can benefit or that these tools may remove the personalised look and feel of their business. This is not necessarily true—how a business applies a tool can make all the difference.

Here is a cheat sheet to some of the tools that can take a retail business to the next level and really set it apart from its competition.

1. Chat Bots

What are they?

Rumoured to become ‘the new app’, chat bots (short for chat robots) are essentially computer programs that simulate human conversations using artificial intelligence and machine learning. They can transform the way a user interacts from a series of self-initiated tasks to a quasi-conversation, and look set to replace many app functions entirely.

Essentially, chat bots are employed to help users solve a problem or attend to their query. They can provide very simple information, like a weather report, or help you troubleshoot a computer problem or schedule an appointment. Bots can also make a purchase for you and help you manage your finances. While one user is usually human, applications are currently being developed to allow two chat bots to communicate with one another.

Chat bots have opened up incredible opportunities for small businesses across all sectors. This is the first time people are spending more time in messenger apps than in social media, which confirms they will become an important marketing and customer experience tool in the near future.

How can retailers use this tech?

For retailers, there are immediate benefits of chat bots over live chat (a conversation with a human customer services agent). Firstly, chat bots can have unlimited concurrent conversations while humans can only realistically focus on a limited number of conversations at once. Chat bots can provide coverage 24/7, and the cost per conversation is significantly less.

It is easy to measure the cost savings that come into effect once chat bots have been employed in place of live customer service agents. The margin of error is greatly reduced, resulting in a far more desirable customer experience and the usually unavoidable costs of staff turnover and training is non-existent. Live agents may also require over-time payment penalties, whereas this is obviously not an issue with chat bots.

The other important factor in favour of chat bots is that it is impossible to provide a consistent conversation experience for each customer with a live agent. Chat bots, however, always take the same format and tone with each and every customer.

Plenty of other functions are set to be replaced by robotic process automation. In fact, as automation goes beyond routine manufacturing activities, it has the potential to transform other retail service sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work. Naturally, there are a great number of factors at play—the first being technical feasibility, but by itself is not a complete predictor that an activity will be automated. A second factor to consider is the cost of developing and deploying both the hardware and the software for automation. Is it less expensive in the long run to simply have human resources retain those jobs?  In other words, if workers are in abundant supply and significantly less expensive than automation, this could be a decisive argument against it.

2. Augmented Reality

What is it?

Pokémon Go is an example of augmented reality. In fact, it represents one of the world’s first and most successful instances of augmented reality being put into operation. An image (in this case an animated character) is placed as a hologram over a shot of your environment. To see the image, the user needs to be looking at their phone screen, and can then interact with it. They can snap a photo of Pikachu sitting at the dinner table with their family, for example.

How can retailers use this tech?

Retail stores—actual physical stores on the street and in the shopping mall—obviously have their place in the world, but they desperately need to redefine their role in the world of their customer. Stores need to rediscover their unique value proposition and then market this to their customers in order to stay in business. The perfect place to begin this discovery process is by investigating which new technologies and tools can be adapted to help them provide a unique customer experience.

The technology offers retail businesses other great opportunities to enhance business operations, from showcasing products to hosting meetings. When a company holds a meeting, remote workers can often be detached from the group or become easily distracted. With augmented reality, however, it’s as if everybody is actually present in the room. The meeting instantly becomes more engaging for the remote team members, and those who are physically present are more likely to include them in the discussion.

3. Internet of Things

What is it?

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the concept of connecting any device with an ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch to the internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from mobile phones to tablets, washing machines, lights, home appliances, lamps, wearable devices, and almost anything else you can think of. According to analyst firm Gartner, by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices.

How can retailers use this tech?

Retailers can make use of this technology to generate more sales from repeat customers. For example, Amazon’s ‘Dash’ feature is a Wi-Fi-enabled button that allows a customer to automatically reorder a set product at the push of a button.

Businesses could also start looking at other ways of being connected online, for example making store maps, product trials, and product information all available as a digital feature.

Another example is the recent initiative deployed by Australia’s largest retail grocery chain. The company has combined mobile scanning machines, which move up and down shopping isles scanning the shelves for the stock available, to then analyse against the stock on hand in the storeroom, with the aim of alerting in store staff to where the shelves need to be replenished. It is estimated that the cost globally to supermarket retailers of having stock available in store, but not visible on the shelf for customers to purchase, is a staggering US$1billion dollars a year. IOT combined with analytics and machine learning is working toward narrowing this cost.

These are just a few of the innovative technological solutions offered in today’s business landscape to help retailers create unique customer experiences. While some may decide it is safer to continue marketing and operating their businesses using the same methods they have for the past 10 years, the businesses that will rise to the top tend to be those that are first to come on board with the latest and greatest scalable technology, moving their business from the brink of ‘making it big’ to the more lucrative market of the early majority.

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Katja Forbes founded syfte, a specialist research and experience design business in 2014, and is an Australian pioneer in the field of experience design.


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