How are the needs of retail customers changing? Comms Business speaks to the Channel to find out.

Technology is transforming retailers across the UK, with seemingly endless possibilities for ways to improve customer satisfaction and streamline operations. The channel is at the heart of helping retailers adopt these new technologies – turning possibilities and ideas into successful deployments.

For partners selling into the retail sector, it is essential to keep pace with evolving opportunities, challenges and market movements. Data can be the key to unlocking transformative results here.

Nick Guite, CSO, SysGroup, explained that data is giving retailers the intelligence to make effective decisions. He said, “Retail customers are constantly implementing new technologies to better understand their customers and improve their experience. The use of datafication, transforming elements of business, like operations, into quantifiable data, and in-store analytics allows them to gather information that previously would have been much more difficult or even impossible to gain. This allows for a better understanding of elements like lifetime value of customers, which can lead to improved profits and business growth.

“From the customer-facing side, many people have used, and even prefer, cashierless checkouts. Amazon and Tesco are just two companies that use these checkouts to create a quicker, more efficient experience for their customers and cut their own costs. We are also seeing significant growth in key areas like AI and virtual fitting rooms, adapting their online shopping experiences to provide better quality customer service.”

Changing consumer shopping habits have reduced the role of physical shops on the high street from a leading to a supporting role. This means retailers rely on technology that will help them reach customers wherever is convenient for them. Sue Michaelwaite, solutions and vertical marketing manager, 8x8, explained, “By far, unless visiting a store, retail customers are using digital, automated, self-service channels as the first choice to reach out to retailers. Increasingly a customer’s first interaction is through social media channels to respond to adverts or offers.”

Michaelwaite added that user-friendly websites are critical. She said, “Easy-to-navigate websites and mobile apps are essential to keep customers in the retailer’s digital shop, without these customers will easily go elsewhere. Web chatbots are popular for starting conversations, while WhatsApp and SMS are preferred for maintaining contact through the sale process.”

She also emphasised the continuing important of voice, but said other communication channels can often assist customers. “Voice remains a popular choice but, more often than not, only when a sales matter is complicated or when e-commerce systems are not delivering on customers’ expectations.”

Jamie Hughes, sales director for the UK, Evolve IP, gave more detail on the communications requirements of retail customers. He said, “Our channel is seeing mixed requirement for retail customers; there’s some that are more traditional and others that are wanting more demanding customer centric technological improvements. Unifying voice solutions across multiple locations, increasing mobility and fixed mobile convergence is another. What we are seeing is demand for people wanting to be able to use a device whilst roaming across a building whether that be voice over Wi-Fi or DECT.

“We are seeing a big push on fixed mobile convergence which brings big disaster recovery benefits if the main connectivity network goes down. Mobile devices can then take over to maintain a seamless service via ‘piggy-back’ style functionality.”

For Cherie Howlett, CMO, Jola, mobile can act as both backup and primary connectivity. She said, “Retail customers are using 4G and 5G for temporary sites, for backup and in locations where fixed-line connectivity is impractical, such as for digital signage in retail stores where running cables is difficult. Multi-network SIMs are useful for multiple, geographically dispersed sites as they negate the need for costly site surveys and provide nearly 100 per cent uptime. One supplier is easier to manage and visibility and control over all SIM assets in a single real-time mobile manager portal is essential.”

Howlett pointed to self-service kiosks as one area where mobile data can be effective. She said, “Fast food restaurants are increasingly adopting self-service kiosks for in-store ordering and delivery. These kiosks require routers and data SIMs and intelligent 4G/5G routers eliminate the need for gateways and simplify setup. These routers offer multinetwork roaming data connectivity and arrive preconfigured for easy installation.”

Mike van Bunnens, CEO, Comms365, outlines other areas where mobile can benefit retailers. He said, “There will be the continuing competition between the convenience of online ordering and, the bricks-and-mortar retail space, with the latter being forced to evolve and focus on the customer experience to maximise footfall. 5G, AR and VR are already driving new in-store experiences, enabling new ways for customers to interact, such as virtual fitting rooms, interactive in-store promotions, mobile point of sale and personalisation, to help retailers differentiate themselves from traditional stores as well as the typical online buying process.”

He discussed how the ways in which IoT projects can deliver results. He said, “Smart shelves are being adopted to improve inventory management, track customer behaviour, and provide real-time product information, promotions and offers. Sales are boosted and back -of-house processes are optimised.”

The underlying connectivity, van Bunnens explained, is the backbone here. “Reliable and resilient Internet connectivity underpins the advanced technologies that retailers want to bring into their stores, as well as in their distribution centres. This connectivity impacts everything – EPoS, Mobile point of sale, self-check-out, guest Wi-Fi, digital signage, inventory management and personalised ordering services. Bonded internet solutions are popular as retailers look to strengthen network performance and reliability.”

Jon Selway, vice president, Aryaka, also discussed the importance of getting the connectivity foundations right. He said, “If retailers want to grow their customer base, they must evolve the overall experience across both aspects and the underlying connectivity and network services act as the foundations for that innovation.”

He highlighted what this means in a practical sense. “Immersive experiences like virtual fitting rooms and in-home VR features require low-latency, high-bandwidth connections. CCTV cameras, RFID-based tagging and smart shelving require an emphatically reliable connection, as do all logistical aspects of the operation, from stock to loss prevention to driver tracking, ensuring online orders are received, fulfilled and delivered. Connectivity is no longer a nice-to-have! It’s essential because if the network goes down, everything comes to a halt, reputations are damaged and impact on revenue is soon to follow.”

Efficient and effective

Omnichannel continues to dominate retail trends, and customer choice remains the goal. Hughes, from Evolve IP, said, “Omnichannel is gaining huge traction, compared to traditional retail purchases. This involves improving the customer experience with different communication channels and ways of interacting.

“That might be calls, emails, web chat, WhatsApp or social media platforms. This can all be delivered through one interface which is then managed on a priority basis. SMS for order conformations is needed too. Customer choice is vital. The cost of technology has come down over the years which has enabled the retail sector to become more efficient and effective.”

IoT projects are also critical in the retail space, helping businesses evolve the customer experience quickly and effectively. Van Bunnens, from Comms365, said, “IoT is the driving force in retail, powering everything from digital signage and interactive displays to smart shelves. These technologies are enabling a far higher level of in-store personalisation, which can make a massive impact on customer engagement and therefore, encourage more in-store purchases. Brand loyalty is strengthened, and longer-term relationships are built.”

Van Bunnens emphasised the meaningful results that can be achieved here. He said, “Not only do these help retailers be more proactive, able to push out new signage in seconds not weeks, while also reducing environmental impact and operational waste, as well as enabling retailers to optimise back-of-house resources and floorspace!”

AI is also expected to continue to make its mark in the sector. Guite, from SysGroup, explained, “The pandemic really changed the retail sector, with less of a reliance on human labour and a greater dependence on technology. This is something retailers are taking advantage of, allowing them to boost efficiency and cut costs, improving their performance.

“AI has also been a key trend which has enabled significant improvements in customer service, especially for online retailers. The use of chatbots and virtual changing rooms now means customers can get a personal experience online. But AI can also provide benefits for in-store customer experiences, with in store streamlining simplifying operations and inventory management.”

Michaelwaite, from 8x8, added, “We are still seeing the growth in chatbots being implemented, powered by a user-friendly conversational AI platform. It’s the speed of being served that is the issue. That’s why we continue to see shoppers using the internet to self-serve and find what they want quickly and easily.

“Customers have been conditioned now to expect self-service and wise companies are tracking that across platforms. That could involve giving customers the ability to move from an internet search to a website, and then complete the transaction without ever talking to a human. The customer experience is fast, efficient service and seamless, while the retailer conserves their most valuable resource, live staff, for more complex, high value transactions.”

Zoning in on challenges

Resellers and MSPs need to help retailers address technology challenges to deliver turn potential into results and long-term success. For Yash Kotak, product management at Vonage and founder and CEO of Jumper.Ai, removing the siloes that persist between customer platforms is critical.

He said, “One of the most significant tech challenges faced today is the prevalence of siloed customer communication platforms. These disconnected systems hinder seamless interactions between retailers and customers, leading to fragmented experiences and missed opportunities for personalised engagement.”

Kotak returned to the possibilities presented by AI, as raised by other stakeholders, with an emphasis on the potential of using AI to solve pressing challenges. He said, “On the flip side, one of the biggest opportunities presenting itself to the retail industry is AI. Amidst the current economic climate, it is now essential for companies to automate and streamline operations, and AI provides these companies with new tools for customer engagement and analysis. As customer purse strings tighten, retailers are using chatbots and virtual assistants to provide customer service and support, while AI algorithms can analyse customer data to provide insights into their behaviour and preferences.”

Another key to success rests on speaking the language of the retail sector. Ian Rowan, country manager for the UK, Wildix, explained, “To succeed, you have to start by being an expert, and it’s a learning curve. [Retailers] have very different KPIs compared to telecoms. Rather than dropped calls or how many calls they’re taking per day, they’re looking at average spend, footfall, items in the basket and opportunities to upsell. We’ve been lucky internally as we have a lot of experience in that sector and we’re pushing that experience out to other staff so that they’re all aware of those KPIs. You can’t go out and sell it blindly.

“We’ve employed someone who’s a specialist in that sector, and partners also need to have that knowledge. [Everyone] involved [in the sale or the project] need to speak the same language. Our partners now have access to experts in this sector and the support from sales through to deployment they need to be successful.

Selway, from Aryaka, pointed out getting the underlying connectivity in order is often the foundation to success. He said, “Retailers that aren’t reimagining their retail experiences will soon fall by the wayside. Instead, those that invest in a reliable connectivity infrastructure and security, and leverage that technology to optimise existing processes, will prove the most successful.

“It’s up to the Channel to educate retailers on what is now possible with technology, converge what’s possible with a retailer’s image of the perfect customer interaction, and work closely with vendor partners to make those dreams a reality.”

In a nutshell, resellers and MSPs can deliver successful technology deployments for retailers by looking beyond symptoms and ensuring the core problem is tackled. 8x8’s Michaelwaite said, “Understand the bigger picture, build agile solutions, keep with open APIs, build for the future, automation AI and continuous improvement.”

This market report appeared in our September 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.

Posted under: