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Comment: Offering Wi-Fi and apps can get you closer to customers

Online retailers have huge amounts of data at their disposal, tapping into the breadcrumb trail of consumers' online actions and visits. The Holy Grail for high street stores is how best to use this information in-store without scaring off a loyal following.

One of the defining qualities of a successful retailer is its ability to build and maintain relationships with its customer base. The likes of Amazon and eBay have been able to catalogue extensive insights into the shopping habits and lifestyle preferences of their visitors, and as such have a wealth of data with which to make informed recommendations. Their success reflects a mutually beneficial relationship whereby retailers can potentially pick up add-on sales as customers are referred to products that are likely to be of interest.

However, the ability of high street retailers to gather this level of detailed information can meet a frosty reception. Traditional methods of data capture such as signing up to e-newsletters, or providing details by hand at the point of purchase can have limited pick-up, with the majority of customers looking to make their transaction as effortless and swift as possible. For this reason, retailers should make use of the technological tools at their disposal.

Opt-in apps on smartphones can potentially give stores the opportunity to extend the breadcrumb trail of customers' online retail journeys, but only if the shopper feels that there is a tangible benefit for them. If this ever becomes too intrusive, the relationship between customer and brand can easily be broken off by the former. Tapping in to consenting customers' profiles, purchase history or declared preferences – the so-called 3Ps – is the way to go. Alex Baldock, CEO of Shop Direct, points out quite correctly that customer permission to collect and use the 3Ps can be earned relatively easily as long as access to this data generates insight that leads to offers that have resonance with the customer.

Through mobile technology and apps, retailers can replicate much of the behavioural data they have at their disposable from online shoppers. Ultimately the technology will be able to identify customers on arrival. And bring special offers or recommendations during in-store visits, making both shopping experiences – online and in-store – more personalised. Most importantly, it guarantees that loyal customers are given the best possible rewards for repeat purchases and for consent to their 3Ps. Utilising Wi-Fi technology, retailers can also gather valuable geographical data, building insights into how shoppers navigate their way around the store, which will lead to more relevant store designs.

Much talk in this space of identifying customers in-store is given to biometrics. Whilst biometrics certainly have a role to play in retailing from a staffing and security standpoint, it may take longer to gain customer confidence to give permissions in the same way they do with mobile apps. After all, sometimes it's just nice to blend into the crowd.

Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, writes a regular Essential Retail column on in-store technology and the wider retail landscape.

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