Comment: Get in-store technology right before it's too late

We have come a long way from tempting customers to spend in-store simply by expertly placing some cardboard POS in a strategic spot in a store. The speed with which retailers are adopting in-store technology to 'enhance the customer experience' is breathtaking. Hardly a day goes by without news of one retailer or another announcing the installation of an interactive screen or display unit, order kiosks, iPads, new-fangled payment devices and the like.

And adding fuel to this thirst for in-store technology, major retailers are supporting initiatives to encourage the techno geeks to come up with even more exciting products to test, trial and implement, in their innovation hubs.

However, all this technology should come with a warning sign, as retailers are probably getting too far ahead of themselves in the race to beat their competition through technology and use it to create competitive advantage and/or a point of difference.

I question how many retailers are investing in finding out what their customers actually want or need; what truly adds to their shopping experience and ultimately to the product being placed in a basket either online or in the store – and ultimately maximising the ROI?

How many retailers have organised themselves in the best way to really determine what the in-store service proposition needs to be to deliver the right experience for their customers and the technology to support it? Not many. Yet retailers do need to have a very clear vision and understanding of the evolving role their store plays in meeting not just today's, but future, customers' needs before they plug in one piece of technology. Most are carried away by the excitement of this new technology and are forgetting some basic retail principles and are struggling to integrate their traditional store teams with the new kids on the block.

Customer-facing technology is a relatively new skill set that would not traditionally have existed in a retail business. Digital experts are highly in demand and retailers have been doing their outmost to create teams that develop and launch new store technology. While there are ample examples of those who have formed digital teams and bought the skills in-house, it would be fair to say that many have yet to crack the code on how their organisation structures and cultures will have to change to meet the new retail world.

Only those retailers that can successfully bring together the expertise of the digital teams with that of the teams that run the physical retail operations and those that own the customer experience will be able to get the ROI they want on their technology investment.

The entire organisation needs to become digital savvy – and unfortunately there are few that can say they are.

There is no longer a place for the functional silo structure in retailing. Decisions need to be based by insights into consumer behaviour, now and the future; everyone needs to debate the question 'what do our customers want from us?'.

Retailers need to clearly define the customer journey across all channels, and how it translates to the in-store experience – and at which point should there be human contact and when should technology come into play? Once conceptualised, then the business needs to outline how its teams work together to create that seamless customer journey.

Some retailers are putting that old fashioned cart before the horse and as with any business, there has to be a 'sponsor' at board level, yet that is not anywhere near the norm for driving the digital side of retail. However, in the future it might well be those directors of multichannel who are directing the entire business and taking precedent over the traditionally titled board members.

From experience we know that teams that cut across the traditional departmental boundaries have the mindset and agility to work fast; the retail operations team, if involved in the initial phases of a technology push, are best placed to ensure a rapid deployment that delivers both the technology into the store, with the appropriate training to ensure the ambition of the team is realised in delivering a great customer experience. Everyone needs to be kept up to speed on developments.

Getting it right now while we are realistically still at the start of the customer journey is important because digital retailing from both a usability and an economic perspective will become increasingly apparent and compelling over the next three to five years.

As with the development of online retail, there were the early adopters and the fast- followers, but others chose to ignore the technology until it was too late. We expect a similar pattern with the take-up of in-store technology, yet as is the case in any competitive environment, the penalty for late evolvers is most often extinction.

Retailers who will be successful in profiting from the transformation of in-store shopping will be developing a business structure that can accommodate innovation; they will identify one owner of the customer experi­ence across channels, build a continuous innova­tion process, evolve how they measure success and dedicate ongoing funding specifically to customer experience innovation.

Retailers, as well as consumers, are taking a long day's journey into the unknown.

Kurt Salmon's Sue Butler writes a regular in-store technology column for Essential Retail.