Comment: Christmas is time to ramp up in-store technology

All eyes will be on Argos this Christmas – and not just because spending on presents is predicted to hit its highest level since 2007. This week the catalogue specialist opened the first of its digital stores (appropriately in east London’s 'silicon valley' area of Old Street).

Voice-activated computers, iPads and WiFi will be in abundance with no sign of pencils, bits of paper and catalogues that weigh a ton.

Just how Argos copes with Christmas “tech style” will be a great barometer for many other retailers who this year will be experiencing their first real “click & collect” festive season.

For many, particularly clothing retailers, this Christmas is more important than ever. The mild autumn meant that sales were below expectations and while most are going into the festive period with less stock than last year they are increasingly desperate to make up the sales shortfall.

This unique trading period can attribute around 20-40% of a retailer’s annual turnover so getting the offer and customer experience right is paramount as performance during the festive period can impact on a retailer’s fortunes for the remainder of the year. 

At Christmas, consumers are willing to visit, virtually or physically, different retailers than those they typically frequent – so this is a great opportunity. If a retailer can attract a new (or lapsed shopper) at this time, there is a good possibility that, given a good experience, they may stay with a retailer for the rest of the year. Uniquely too, this festive period is also one that attracts tens of millions of “browsers” – both online and in-store – looking for that elusive gift to delight their nearest and dearest.

As such, Christmas is a time to turn up the volume in the way in which in-store technology is utilised.

Managing a “click & collect” service during normal trading periods is one thing; coping with it during the Christmas rush may be something else.

Providing customers with the opportunity to continue their “browsing” via conveniently located devices (iPads, kiosks and digital screens) close to the “click & collect” area could provide the “entertainment” should there be a delay in locating a purchase, or just with the volume of customers. Free WiFi would come into its own here, too.

Christmas, however, is also that moment in the retail calendar when all the operating imperfections are magnified. As retailers get closer to Christmas and shoppers become more fraught, making sure temporary staff know how to access information (or the right colleague to ask) to find out whether a product is actually available somewhere in the business could prove the difference between gaining or losing not just for that day, but potentially for ever. So this is where more staff on the sales floor with iPads or tablets could make a difference.

In the traditional world of retail, Christmas plans are put to bed weeks before the big day draws near. All that’s left to do is trade it well, typically relying on your store teams to deliver, or not, as many retailers have found to their cost. 

However, we find ourselves in unchartered territory. Retailers with strong online propositions and those with electronic shelf edge labels have the opportunity to trade Christmas well: fine tune prices and/or quickly switch on special time of day or last minute offers. This could prove very powerful given their ability to respond to consumer demand with the most up to date information on what’s selling and what’s not! It will be interesting to see just how effective it can be.

By now all retailers should have the answers to questions such as:

As soon as Christmas is over, the sales figures will be out and the successes and failures well noted, so there is not a moment to lose to undertake a review, both in general terms and with a focus on exploiting technology – remembering that all the cutting edge devices and solutions will have moved on by next year!

See you in 2014.

The Kurt Salmon team writes a regular column on in-store technology for Essential Retail.