Mary Portas shares vision of future customer journey

Retail guru, TV personality and PR professional Mary Portas says customer experience is fast becoming the main differentiator for retailers, ahead of product. At an event in London, last week, she shared her vision for a tech-led customer journey of the future.

Speaking at online personalisation technology provider Monetate's European Summit, the former 'high street tsar' for the UK government argued that the "digital revolution" of the last decade has swung the power into the hands of the consumer, not the retailer. Progressive organisations, she said, might be better placed putting more emphasis on the needs of the customer rather than their shareholders.

Portas argued that a successful business often follows its instinct over a dedicated strategy, and she suggested that brick and mortar will continue to play the central role in retail, with companies such as tech giant Apple investing so heavily in its stores because "it's the most powerful way of expressing their brand".

Offering her vision of a modern, thriving retail sector, she commented: "What we'll see is true omnichannel customer experiences, connecting what the reality of the brand is and how people want to experience it and then looking at all the touchpoints – every part: digitally, in-store, verbally, the team, everything towards the customer experience.

"Stores of the future are actually going to become lifestyle and social spaces."

Clearly drawing on some of the points raised in an article called 'The Future of Shopping' by Darrell K. Rigby, in the December 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, Portas also offered a fictional scenario of how today's shopping experience could be for customers, if retailers utilised the technology that is now available and combined it with a deep understanding of their customers' behaviours and preferences.

It was the closing part of a wide-ranging public address, in which Portas commended retailers such as Bonobos, Warby Parker, Selfridges and Pret a Manger for their dedication to customer service and innovation. Essential Retail often runs stories looking at specific aspects of the journey she described, and we felt Portas's commentary brought together, into one single vision, many of the individual components retailers are already considering.

Portas's fictional customer journey description

"It's a warm Saturday in Manchester. Amy aged 28 needs four outfits. Six years ago she would head straight to the shops; today she starts shopping from her couch and via a conference with her personal concierge at John Lewis, where she bought two outfits the previous month.

"The concierge recommends several items [aligning them with] Amy's avatar. Amy rejects a couple of items and is immediately on another browser to search customer reviews and prices. She finds better deals on similar items at another retailer.

"She buys one item from John Lewis online and then she drives to a John Lewis store near to her to see an item she really wanted to try on. As she enters the shop a customer assistant greets her by name and walks into a dressing room stocked with her online selections and matching shoes and a dress.

"She likes the shoes so she scans the barcode into her smartphone and finds the same pair for £10 less on eBay. The sales associate quickly offers to match the price and encourages her to try on the dress. It's a bit expensive so Amy sends a video to three of her cool friends, asking for their opinion and they come back and say, "don't get it".

"She collects the items that she wants, she scans an internet site for coupons, saving an additional £10 and she checks out with a smartphone.

"As she heads for the door, a life-size screen recognises her and shows a special offer on an irresistible [jacket]. She checks her budget online, uses her phone to scan and customise the coat on the screen and the item will be sent to her home overnight."

Portas emphasised that the scenario is fictional but "not as futuristic or fanciful as you might think". From the stories Essential Retail publishes every week to the technology annually on display at end-to-end retail solutions expo, RBTE, it is clear the tech used in the fictional shopping journey account is available for retailers today – it's a case of retailers not yet integrating all of these capabilities into their existing operations.

"Very few business are making this happen yet," Portas explained, adding that some of the examples "will be totally and utterly ubiquitous in how we shop" in five years' time.

"What seems like a dream come true for the shopper is going to be a really big headache for us in the business of trying to sell," she added.

What do you think of Mary's vision? Will it become the norm and which retailers are making the fastest progress when it comes to combining the latest technology and eCommerce capability with their store estates? Feel free to share your views on Twitter @EssRetail