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Store Technology Q&A: Redefining Experiential Retail For The COVID-19 Era

  • June 17, 2020 at 9:39 AM EDT
  • By Alicia Esposito
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The hype surrounding “experiential retail” encouraged retailers to think big and invest in technology that would keep shoppers in stores longer — touching and feeling products and having long, passionate conversations with associates. But social distancing guidelines and traffic restrictions enforced due to COVID-19 have forced retailers to redefine “experiential,” and, more importantly, rethink the role of in-store technology.

Rather than using surprise and delight to entice customers to visit stores, retailers should focus on building trust and reassuring shoppers that their health isn’t at risk, according to Andy Austin, President and Founder of The Industrious. That means using technology to focus less on razzle-dazzle and more on practicality.

“We’re having a lot of conversations with retailers about the basic blocking and tackling we need to do in order to do the right thing for shoppers,” Austin said. “How do we show effectively that we really care about the shopper? Sure, we want to continue to have the conversations that we had before and continue to build the relationships that we built before. But we understand that we need to do it in a different way now.”

The first priorities are to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), train salespeople and make sure that stores are displaying cleanliness. “But then, we’re asking: What are some novel ways to show that?,” Austin added. “Because you can always put a sign on the door that says masks are required. We’d rather change the message to, ‘We care about you, and we’re going to do things that are going to help you feel more comfortable sharing this space with us.’”

In this exclusive Q&A, Austin shares how The Industrious is helping brands and retailers take a scalable approach to technology, and how these investments can power the digital-physical connection that consumers have been craving.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): As a firm, you’re very focused on the role of tech in experience design. How do you take the fundamental safety and health principles that are so important right now, and encourage retailers to go a step further and think about innovative ways to bring that message to life?

Andy Austin:
Once we have that foundational conversation, we collectively ask, ‘How can the technology we have today help us get that message across?’ Do you have digital signage in your store today? Are you rotating announcements every 15 minutes in your digital signage loop? Now is the time where your salesperson is going to have to step away from the conversation for a moment and wipe down the counter, so are you using that technology to message things like, ‘We care about you,’ or ask if people would like a new paper mask? There’s technology that exists today that can help you get that message across, and there’s also technology that we think can be easily implemented.

RTP: Beyond sharing messaging to build trust and show all the ways they can help, what else can retailers do? How are you seeing experiential strategies evolve in light of the current situation?

Austin:
The key thing to remember is, this is not a front-of-house versus back-of-house problem. This is a back-of-house supporting front-of-house problem. The reason I say that is that the only thing that consumers see is front-of-house, and the things they used to invest in — time, effort, energy speaking with a salesperson — those are being replaced with their health. Retailers now should be thinking about how they can make conversations more efficient. Can they make product discovery take less time? Because the ‘just for fun’ shopping trip is gone, at least for short term.

For instance, apparel retailers have to take all the rounders off the floor because we need to do social distancing. And you know what, that’s great because most people don’t want to buy a pair of jeans that someone touched. If you take more rounders off the floor, you can put the jeans in back, and allow customers to use their own device to view styles and figure out if the size they need is in the back. The customer is allowed to touch the brand, and the brand is allowed to touch the customer. But it’s all done in a way where you treat the customer’s time with respect, and their health improves.

RTP: What technologies are rising to the top to help retailers take this more practical approach to the in-store experience, especially with cost-cutting being so crucial right now?

Austin:
One of the most interesting things that has come out of this pandemic is that we can now pay more attention to what the shopper is carrying in her pocketbook. We’ve always been afraid of doing that because of showrooming, but people are already doing that because of Amazon. That’s why this bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concept is a very, very interesting one. And for those retailers that have digital signage and other types of screens in the store today, it is not a big leap to be able to integrate a BYOD implementation into that digital signage, and allow a shopper to quickly scan a QR code or receive a text message. Suddenly, that device becomes a remote control for the digital sign, and we can use that digital sign to navigate product that may have been taken off the floor. Or even better, we can have a conversation with a shopper and guide them through product catalogs, which allows us to not have to physically touch product that’s on display.

We know that the BYOD concept works; that device has been in the control of the shopper the whole time. They already have a trust relationship with that device, and that ultimately leads to a continued trust relationship with the brand. These technologies also are not difficult for the IT department to implement.

Then, when you’re talking about investment in the future, we love the concept of taking the content that’s already been curated for online and activating it for in-store. Imagine if, now that we’re training the shopper to integrate our physical space with their mobile device, you were finally taking this opportunity to create a beacon-based in-store experience. Then we allow that beautiful physical-digital engagement to happen and allow beacons to start speaking as we’re doing social distancing in-store. We call this digital distancing — to bridge social distancing and allow the consumer to speak to the store as she’s walking around and looking at products. This is beacons and displays, but it also requires interface with the POS and supply chain.

RTP: What kind of insights will this experience give retailers access to? And, how will this data ultimately help retailers adapt and optimize experiences moving forward?

Austin:
Retailers still have to manage their traditional metrics, such as opportunities, door swings and revenue per square foot. But with these technologies, you get some magic new metrics that can help you to justify investments and improve experiences.

These are insights that have so far been elusive to us, like number of retail repeat visits at the shopper level or products that have been viewed. Previously, the only way we knew what products people liked was what was looked at on the rounders. Now we can uncover trends by seeing what people are viewing in-store as they are going through the digital product catalog. When we create digital signage content, we create content that we think people want. But now we can actually look at views, based on how often content is called up from a product catalog that happens to be on the user’s device. There are some great metrics that are going to allow us to become better users of technology, and, more importantly, better content providers to our shoppers.

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RTP: Is it fair to say that retailers should now being looking at technology investments through a more practical lens?

Austin: I think that’s fair to say. I would add that the technology investments should enhance the critical focus you need to have on the front-of-house today, because it needs to be completely redone. A basic example is the concept of, we go out to a restaurant and we go to the restroom, they put the restroom cleaning schedule on the back of the door. That’s not for the people that have to clean the restroom; that’s to prove to customers that the restaurant is diligent and cares about cleanliness. That’s been going on for generations.

So now that same concept needs to be at the front-of-house, and having salespeople wearing masks isn’t enough. It’s about executing actual cleaning procedures during the day, moving product that has been tried on, all the challenges that go along with changing the way that consumers interact with display products.

RTP: You broke down how these new digitally connected experiences can scale over time, from digital signage to beacons. Does that help mitigate any concerns around cost or return on investment (ROI)?

Austin: Sure, there’s a lot of ROI potential. But it’s also table stakes and a survival tactic, because we’re trying to find ways to keep our physical retail spaces relevant and engaging. But to begin this process, we set ourselves apart from the retailers that aren’t doing this, and invite those shoppers in by saying, ‘this is a new, more streamlined, safer front-of-house experience.’

I know there are a lot of stores in the mall that already have digital signage, so the concept of integrating and changing playlists on the fly, based on a web call that comes from a consumer’s mobile device, is a very basic investment. It’s not zero, but many, many systems have that capability today. And that little change right there is enough to advertise to shoppers that they will see a different experience in this location.

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