As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail is gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews. This week, it's the turn of Box Technologies' marketing director, Raj Parmar.

Shop footfall for 2015 is on course to increase year on year for the first time since 2004, but a busy Christmas and festive period will be needed to ensure shopper numbers for the entire 12-month period have edged upwards by 31 December.

Ipsos Retail Performance, which measures shopper data in non-food stores across the UK, says the upturn – which in November sat at 0.7% above 2014's year-to-date footfall – marks a new-found harmony between online and offline retailing "in which channel collusion replaces competition", as well as general economic improvements.

The blurring of the lines between physical and digital retailing is supported by retailers' growing propensity to introduce new technologies, kiosks, tablet devices and other customer engagement tools that help digitise their shops. Some businesses operating in the sector have purposefully upgraded their tech arsenal in time for the expected rush of consumers to their shop-floors over the next fortnight and into the new year sales period.

Box Technologies' marketing director, Raj Parmar, says those who have not invested in new in-store systems to manage the festive stampede, are going to have to make sure they are delivering the fundamental retail services particularly well this Christmas.

"If retailers haven't refreshed their technology they are not going to be able to do it until after the Christmas sales because they are in lock-down period," he told Essential Retail.

"I think it is back to basics in terms of having some helpful staff with smiles on their faces, and having staff who know how to use the technology and who can assist customers with queries."

For those retailers that have identified in-store technological competence as a key business hygiene factor over the festive period, including London department store, Liberty, and UK footwear specialist, Office, there appears to be a real focus on queue busting and efficient processing of transactions.

Liberty upgraded its point of sale (PoS) hardware to Box Technologies' earlier this year to ensure the system was fast enough to cope with BT Expedite's latest software which sits on the device. The Regent Street store wants to serve shoppers as quickly as possible, and for the transaction process to not detract from the quality customer experience it aims to create.

Parmar says efficiency at the point of sale is the first tech consideration for retailers preparing to deal with a spike in customer traffic, such as those typically experienced in the two weeks leading up to 25 December.

He commented: "Liberty is a good example. They refreshed their tills because they weren't working quickly or reliably enough, and they felt they wouldn't cope with the Christmas rush.

"They've upgraded their 114 tills across their Regent Street store and the feedback already after a few weeks of usage is that the customer experience has improved. It's a lot quicker and queues are a lot shorter and they are not seeing as many abandoned baskets."

Mobile point of sale finally coming of age?

Mobile point of sale, where transactions are made away from a fixed till point and via a tablet device and payment terminal, have been viewed as a future queue-busting technique for a number of years now. But actual retailer adoption has been slow, with Schuh, Monsoon-Accessorize and Paperchase among a select few UK retailers that have deployed this technology to varying levels of success.

So, what has been holding up the roll-out of a technology that offers clear benefits for improving the in-store customer experience?

"We launched our tablet with payment last year and there has been huge interest in the hardware," explained Parmar.

"The real challenge for retailers has been the integration of mobile device with payment into existing legacy infrastructure."

Box Technologies is one of a significant number of companies looking to provide MPoS services for retailers, and the Oxfordshire-based vendor says it is working with payment processing provider Worldpay to bring such a service to market. Worldpay is reportedly securing integrations with software firms, such as K3 and PCMS, and there is real hope that next year will see a growing number of MPoS deployments where payment can be accepted away from a fixed till point.

Office shoes, for example, appears to be a prime candidate for using MPoS due to footwear retailing's historic model for clientelling, but it is presently using Box's tablet with docking station solution as a "micro till". In special preparation for this year's Christmas period, the retailer has deployed 30 tablets with docking stations which can be used by staff to combat high traffic levels and provide customers more points at which to interact with the brand.

"Retailers are going through a hybrid process because to get to mobile payment right now hasn't been as straight forward as we all would like," said Parmar.

"There are a lot of tech integration issues to address, but people now know what they are."

He described the process as "a complex project" but is confident the pain points have been identified and "next year is going to be the year of true transactional mobile".

The benefits of mobile till points at busy times of year are clear to see, but there will be an array of in-store innovation in retail outlets around the world this Christmas that has not been seen in abundance in previous years. The likes of virtual reality headsets and smart changing room mirrors to provide a communication channel between customers and store staff are increasingly cropping up at premium fashion stores in flagship shopping locations.

Much of it may not have such a practical use during the hustle and bustle of the high street in December, according to Parmar.

"Virtual reality sounds like nirvana because you don't need all the stock in store. It's almost like an endless aisle and you don't actually have to try things on, in terms of fashion," he remarked.

"This technology is perhaps for when there's more time to dwell in front of the mirror – it's more leisurely. At this time, people just want to be in and out very quickly. I can't see it aiding Christmas. But throughout the year when people are less stressed and have less urgency that's when they can engage with this technology to its full benefit."

He added: "A bigger topic in retail is how confident are staff in dealing with web-savvy customers who have done their research and who now have the upper hand.

"The challenge for retail this Christmas is to be prepared for all these tech-savvy customers and help them achieve a better customer experience."

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