Furniture retailer Heal's is once again trialling technology in an effort to join up its online and offline shopping experience for customers.

The UK-based business has placed a significant focus on this particular operational challenge over the last 12 months, and from this week it expects to be using smart glasses technology to give some of its online shoppers a more personalised and in-depth insight into products.

Customers shopping online will be able to select an option to notify Heal's store associates of their interest in a certain product, which will prompt a member of staff to contact the consumer and offer them a real-time tour of what is in the store, through the smart glasses lens.

Although only at proof of concept stage, Heal's sees this process as a potential solution for reducing online returns and as a platform for providing a personalised customer service that breaks down some of the perceived restrictions of internet shopping for high-end items. It is also expected to be used to help validate an online shopper's choice, so Heal's plans to contact people who have already made a purchase via the web to give them a virtual tour and explanation of the product they are set to acquire.

The debate is not about improving one retail channel or another; it is about using all of a retailer's physical and digital real estate to the maximum. Sales will be attributed to the in-store 'tour guide', addressing the widespread industry problem which often sees online and shop staff viewing each other's departments as competitive.

Oliver White, eCommerce and IT director at Heal's, said: "People come into store to touch products and speak to experts. 

"We're just about to do an experiment with smart glasses. If they look at high value products, they'll be prompted to look at similar products. Straight away there can be a one-to-one interaction. It's as close to a one-to-one interaction without being there."

White was talking at a panel debate organised by web hosting firm Rackspace and chaired by independent technology consultant Jon Collins, and which also included representatives from high street retailer Game Digital, eCommerce platform provider SAP hybris and retail technology experts Validify.

Panellist and founding partner of Validify, Mark Adams, commended Heal's plans, adding: "Innovation in the UK around retail technology is among the best in the world." He also suggested that a "real competitive advantage" can be created from driving innovation in the store space.

Heal's is using UK start-up GoInStore's technology, which was launched into the retail space for the first time last year in association with independent retailer, Dawsons Music.

The service is supported by server infrastructure and artificial intelligence that analyses online behaviour to ensure web shoppers are connected to the representative best placed to serve them for their individual needs and interests.

Adams commented: "It's a great use of technology, isn't it? You're managing resources in the enterprise and helping it serve customers."

Aside from White's announcement surrounding the GoInStore's system, the panel debate delved into wider issues such as the challenges of presenting shoppers with one view of stock, how to keep pace with the more sophisticated digital retailers like Amazon, Argos and Screwfix and the importance of optimising the customer experience.

The insights from White and Game Digital's CIO, Dave Perry, on the structural difficulties retailers face in putting digital operations and cross-channel flexibility at the heart of their organisations, were particularly illuminating.

"There's a huge seven-year-old European retailer turning over $3 billion – they integrate their different channels," explained White.

"You have a product person who will spend two to three days in products then move to eCommerce.  There are loads of dotted lines across the business; it encourages a holistic approach to the business. One person's responsibility is not just for selling. Instead of a team that sits in its own unit, you have bits knitted together."

Picking up on that point, Perry noted: "I've gone through different businesses and the cultural shift is understanding that there isn't any difference. 

"If you look out for marketing, the fact you think it's separate means that you're not integrated. You will get unique channels and there's a bit around internet retail operations versus retail operations, but there are very few people with specialist skills."

Game Digital uses digital signage to help engage with its customers in stores

White added that even specialist retail or online roles, such as those people in charge of search engine optimisation, can use their insight to help the overall business.

"If they can see the search terms x, y, and z bringing people in, it needs to be fed in to drive a wider strategy," he remarked.

"If we get more traffic on something, we invest in optimising our strategy for a particular brand."

Another panellist, Charles Nicholls, SVP for product strategy, marketing solutions at SAP hybris, emphasised the point by suggesting that marketing departments within retail organisations can accentuate the data divide by continually investing in new channels and customer engagement platforms that are not integrated into the central company infrastructure or CRM, therefore creating further information silos.

One recurring point of the debate was that retailers should not be trying to do everything with the array of tech solutions available to them; the consensus was that it is more about testing and learning, and ensuring any new tech investment is integrated into a central architecture.

Heal's, which by White's acknowledgement is still in the early stage of embracing digital and breaking down boundaries between traditional retail and new sales channels, is clearly going through that learning stage. Last year, working with CloudTags, the company put Heal's-branded tablets into its stores and allowed shoppers to use the devices as they moved around the shop.

The aim for Heal's was to give customers a digital platform on which they could access more information about products in the store, while at the same time gathering personal shopper data, including email addresses and purchasing intent. The notion is that this information can be used in follow-up marketing messages or other customer communication.

Following the trial last summer, White said: "Physical store shoppers who opt-in for personalised digital reminders and recommendations have been spending three times more than the average online customer."

General conclusions from last week's debate were that no amount of technology will offer long-term benefits to retailers if their infrastructure is not fit for purpose or flexible enough to move with the times, but this necessary transformation process is not a simple journey – especially when there is so much choice of solution out there.

Adams said: "The problem is that retailers can't see what's genuinely innovative. One CEO said they were fielding 40 to 50 calls a day from tech companies. How do they pick out the innovation out of the noise?"

Delegates at the event heard also heard that digital marketers – as a second example – often do not have enough time in the day to invest, adopt and integrate the sophisticated systems available to them that might help them better understand their customers, primarily because they are so focused on the day job of actually getting emails created and distributed in the first place.

The technology to solve retailers' existing pain points is out there, but it is clear the respective businesses must devise their own strategies and build in the tech around those individual plans, in order to move forward.

As Mike Bainbridge, chief digital technologist at Rackspace UK, commented: "The key advantage of digital adoption is that you can run tests and see what works."

And in his concluding remarks he said that this will lead to businesses understanding when to fully adopt a new technology at the right time for the good of their organisation.

"The retailers often follow the trend set by Amazon or Asos," he said. "Taking the big leap differentiates the key brands."

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Rackspace

GoInStore

Validify

SAP hybris

CloudTags