Amy Reeve, Marketing Assistant at Trustmarque Solutions

The advent of the digital era has provided us with new ways of doing everything, from socialising to shopping; the wholesale change we’ve witnessed has been perhaps the most pervasive since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, completely redefining how our society functions. We now live in an age which is instantaneous, connected by default and constantly morphing into something new – and it’s time for business and retail to play catch up.

Much has been made of the decline of the British high street, with many placing the blame squarely at the feet of online retail. This is not necessarily fair. It is not simply convenience that has consumers turning to their computers rather than their local shops, but a sense of familiarity. Online retail embodies the zeitgeist of the 21st century: connected, intuitive and relevant. Thus far, the inability – and sometimes downright refusal – of brick and mortar retail to adopt such an approach is what has contributed, in no small part, to the decline in customer numbers in stores across the country.

That is not to say that no progress has been made at all, mind you: it goes without saying that everyone has a website these days, and many stores offer hybrid services such as the ability to order online and pick up in store. But it’s not enough. If businesses wish to see customers at their storefronts again, then adapting to the customers’ preferred means is the only way to go about it, and that will require more than just a hashing together of website and store. Integrating networks and smart devices into physical stores will not only give customers a reason to return to the high street, but will provide businesses with a wealth of data that they’d otherwise be missing out on.

To provide an example, this kind of intelligent integration has already been piloted by Tesco: their ‘Scan As You Shop’ initiative has seen consumers given electronic scanning devices to scan items during their shop, thus circumventing the arduous process of unpacking and packing again at the tills. It seems a relatively simple development, the next step on from the self-service tills which are now commonplace in most large supermarkets, but it epitomises what digital innovation can do for retail. Using technology, we can improve upon processes which have heretofore been considered the norm. By breaking the mould in such a way Tesco have successfully distinguished themselves in a fiercely competitive market.

The next step, of course, is to do away with the bespoke hardware, and allow this kind of customer-business interaction through channels with which both sides are already comfortable. Providing customers with high-quality service means connecting with them on their own terms, and in this day and age that means digitally, through their smartphones and tablets. Tesco’s example is a relatively niche application of developing hardware, but what if aspects of the digital experience could be introduced to the high street? What if deal notifications, product suggestions and personalised shopping could be made available in-store as well as online? Maintaining a strong, consistent online presence and communicating via social media is an important part of reaching out to customers, but so is extending the digital experience into stores and shopping centres.

With recent advancements in sophisticated and affordable analytics, it is within the capacity of retailers to provide just such a service. Having a dedicated app is one thing, but interacting with customers via their smartphones in situ and in real-time is the next step in retail customer service. Smart device integration is a big sector for growth, from relatively simple implementations such as mobile payment technologies to more complex applications like on-the-fly basket analysis as shoppers navigate a store or shopping centre. Allowing customers to access the features they most enjoy about digital shopping is the most likely way to tempt them back into stores across the country, and to earn their loyalty by presenting value, ease-of-access and an innovative service – all via their smartphone.

Providing a high-quality retail experience for customers has gone far beyond simple service with a smile; integrating the digital world is now crucial, and will become ever more so as technology continues to permeate our lives. Managing social media is the first step, but to truly distinguish your business from competitors requires a willingness to adopt new technology platforms both online and on the ground. Your customers will thank you.

Image courtesy of Rick Harris

Amy ReeveAmy Reeve
Amy is a freelance writer and blogger who specialises in addressing technology, the IT industry and the hazards of life in the digital era. She has been working with Trustmarque for over a year, writing for the company blog and supporting Trustmarque’s position as a progressive, digitally-aware organisation and a leader in the business-to-business IT solutions sector.

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