On the back of a record Black Friday season, Australian retailers have a real window of opportunity to evolve their offerings and leverage a growing market. Unfortunately, a range of external factors are conspiring to close this window.

Migration to our shores is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, representing a hurdle for an industry reliant on international students. Latest figures confirm the retail sector has more than 40,000 vacancies –the highest increase of any industry.

Record inflation is adding to these woes, with almost every aspect of running a business, from raw materials and shipping to energy costs, increasing exponentially.

Consumers, meanwhile, have indicated an intention to tighten their purse strings in the home and apparel categories to deal with the rising cost of living. Mistrust has also been fuelled by the recent string of high-profile breaches against Australian retail brands, including Woolworths and North Face.

All of this is happening as consumers have access to a growing number of local and international brands with just a few taps of their phone screens. As with any competitive market, expectations are growing, and people are quick to ditch brands that don’t meet their diverse and often conflicting needs.

Customers want goods quickly, with no compromise to quality. They want to shop online but other times want the comfort of an in-store experience. They expect consistent service, but also enjoy being pleasantly surprised by the unexpected. Gartner has even coined a term for this – the ‘Everything Customer’.

As grim as it seems, Australian retailers cannot take this situation lying down. Retail, in some form or another, has existed since the earliest human civilisations. Those that survived history’s slings and arrows were the ones that adapted to and learnt from shifting market conditions, not those that cowered in the face of them.

Strategies exist that can ease these frustrations, improve the customer experience and re-route Australia’s retailers towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

Making work simpler with the right allocations

A handy place to start is looking at where the pain points of customers and retail staff intersect. Both groups want to save time, for interactions to run smoothly and to feel supported at each step of their journeys.

The first step towards achieving better customer experiences is by improving the employee experience. Research has consistently backed this up, with Gallup finding that satisfied employees are three times as likely to solve customer issues and problems than those less engaged or motivated.

Staff at all levels of the retail supply chain should be empowered to collaborate in a way that is seamlessly integrated with their digital lives. This should occur within one place, rather having them jump through several applications to get their jobs done.

It also means staff are less likely to revert to other means to connect, such as WhatsApp, which can lead to unintentional compliance breaches. Additionally, company knowledge and potential training material is less likely to leave the business when turnover occurs.

Staff should also have access to artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to take over routine tasks and allow them to focus on interpersonal elements of customer service.

Shoppers also don’t want to wait a long time to have their issues resolved. Companies should be able to connect them to the right person at first interaction – saving time, a key concern amid resource shortages, and increasing customer loyalty in the process.

Perhaps most obviously, though it bears repeating, is the fact retail leaders should listen to and anticipate what customers want, rather than waiting to be told. An example would be knowing the brands of electronics a customer prefers so you can flag when a new version of the product is on sale.

Retailers should also look at the ways customers are contacting their organisation, how easy it is for them to do so, and consider whether customers are requesting channels that don’t currently exist. For example, we recently attended an event where a delegate said 70 per cent of customers were replying to Do Not Reply text messages. It was therefore logical for this organisation to begin replying to these texts.

Australia’s retail industry has an opportunity to enter its Golden Age. Trade has consistently grown since the height of the pandemic, and online shopping has endured as a convenient preference for shoppers. By heightening the employee experience, making use of AI and expanding choice for customers in line with the digital world, retail leaders can restore consumer confidence and make the most of these opportunities.

Dino Beverakis is managing director for Australia and New Zealand at Avaya.