How retail can get with the times and provide quality customer journeys

It’s no secret that retail is broken. That was true before the novel coronavirus shut down storefronts across the globe. What the pandemic has revealed, says Kelly Slessor—a futurist, digital marketing expert, and founder of personalised virtual shopping mall Shop You—is that retailers are forced to actually think about how customers shop in the real world. That realisation, she says, will enhance the customer experience going forward.

“When we launched e-commerce, we forgot about humans,” Slessor told VENTURE. “If you walked into a store tomorrow and someone said to you, ‘Hi, here’s all of our products, there’s 10,000 products and what you want could be down at the end of the store, go and have a look.’ You would probably just walk out.”

Yet that’s basically how e-commerce works on the whole, removing the personal touch of an in-person experience. What retailers need to do is connect the online experience to the offline one, Slessor says.

Unhappy Returns

For some big fashion groups, return rates for items purchased online are 35%. This costs billions of dollars every year, making it one of the biggest pain points in retail. Personalising the online experience with innovations such as the virtual try-on will increase customer satisfaction and reduce waste. It’s a win-win, and it gives augmented reality a newfound purpose.

“I’ve always said that AR is a technology looking for a problem to solve,” Slessor said. “I think we’re now shifting into it finding problems to solve.”

Over the last several years, the makeup industry has developed a quality and commercially viable customer experience with virtual try-ons powered by AR. The fashion industry is catching on, she said, noting the quality of Zeekit’s virtual sizing and styling. Getting the right fit is the first step—and a huge one—in reducing the rate of return for clothes purchased online. But it’s not just about ordering something that fits your body, shoppers also want clothes that fit their personalities.

“As a customer, I want you to personalise stuff that is right for me and help me sift through the multiple brands and products that are out there,” she said. “Then I want to know if it’s going to fit me.”

To that end, Shop You has been working on a personalisation algorithm that Slessor views as the gap between the online and in-store experiences.

Click & Collect

As for the in-person shopping experience, in the short term we’ll see more cashierless stores with contactless payment systems such as the “Just Walk Out” service from Amazon Go. Not only is it convenient to not have to wait in a checkout queue, it’s also safer during a pandemic.

Click and collect curbside pickup options where customers do their shopping online then go to a physical location to retrieve their purchases will also rise over the next several years. Again, it reduces contact during the pandemic and increases convenience over the long term.

“Target saw an increase in their curbside pickup of 1000% in April of this year,” Slessor said, “and 40% of that was actually new customers.”

Shop You took a similar approach with drive-thru pickup and saw a positive response from customers who were more at ease shopping with a contactless or reduced contact setup.

“I think that then lends itself to click and collect with autonomous vehicles,” she said. “It starts to get shopping centres building out autonomous services. They’re starting to build out these drive-thru functions. That’s an investment from them and it requires a cultural shift and investment in technology, but it starts to set up spaces within shopping centres for drive-thru and for autonomous vehicles, which we haven’t thought about before.”

This leads to shopping malls transforming more into fulfillment centres. Rather than ordering online and waiting for the product to be delivered from a fulfillment centre, shoppers can go straight there and pick up their items. Amazon is already considering this move in partnership with Simon Property Group, the largest mall owners in the US. Singapore’s Funan mall embraces this ‘phygital’ shopping experience where everything, including parking spaces, can be ordered and purchased via smartphone.

Omnichannel a Must

For retailers to remain part of the customer journey, they must move to omnichannel operations or be left behind, Slessor says.

“If we look at what happened during COVID, multichannel retailers shut down their stores, they had stock in stores that no one could get to. They didn’t have good inventory of what was in stores to be able to show that online, so they had millions of dollars stuck in store and they didn’t have foot traffic going into stores and they had a subpar e-commerce experience.”

Mobile apps, with their ability to enhance the customer experience through data capture, have conversion rates of 6-7%, about twice the industry average for online shopping. By personalising as Shop You does on the desktop, retailers can drive those conversion rates up. Technological advances have made things like virtual try-ons accessible to local retail and not just the biggest players, which Slessor believes will help level the playing field. Google’s introduction of free local ads has the potential to steer billions of dollars to small retailers.

Through every channel, retailers will need to keep the human aspect of the shopping experience, asking customers questions and getting to know them rather than presenting them a catalogue.

“What we really did was we took print and we stuck it online,” Slessor said. “For 10 or 15 years, we’ve used the same format over and over again, and what we’ve seen is it’s actually not working.”

The virtual mall Shop You is developing will treat the online experience just like the in-person one, complete with personal stylist and concierge and connect the physical store to the online store. Whether your preferences run toward the athleisure wear popular in the age of work from home or the evening wear sure to see a boom once we can go out regularly once more, you’ll find just what you’re looking for and be able to get it in a convenient way that suits you. That will make for satisfied customers and more money in the pockets of retailers.