That our retail landscape is on the move is incontrovertible. That companies which completely ignore the digital transformation in its current and future forms will soon be suffering, even more so. Strikingly, it’s the retail sector in particular that’s experiencing a major revolution. What does this look like and which sector trends will dominate in 2018?
1. Digital is gathering momentum rapidly
Let’s first take a look at the progress that technology has made so far in the retail sector. While writing my latest book, Customers the Day After Tomorrow: How to Attract Customers in a World of AI, Bots, and Automation, I found myself amazed more than once at how many impressive things are happening already. For example, I’m fascinated by how the global dominance of Amazon has influenced matters in our European region as well. For those who only watch from the side-lines: this past summer, Amazon acquired the American supermarket chain Whole Foods - a game changer that shook up the entire retail market. In barely a month, the takeover was complete, and an unprecedented style of competition had been born. Since then, ever-smarter similar initiatives have been appearing in Europe at a rapid pace. Just like Walmart last summer, clothing chain Zara is experimenting with an automated pick-up location in Spain. CleverFlex, the so-called automaton, can store up to 4,000 online parcels for consumers who would rather pick up their online orders at a brick-and-mortar shop. They simply scan the barcode with their smartphone and are then handed their parcel barely 30 seconds later.
Phenomenal, isn’t it? Where before, omnichannel just consisted of an offline element on the one hand and online sales on the other, retail players now employ their physical presence more intelligently. By using their location as a digital platform, they obtain the same online level of ease of use in an offline format. Online and offline are intertwined, and we as consumers reap the collective benefit.
2. Belgium also (cautiously) boards the innovation express
Regardless of the currently still-unplanned roll-out of the above-mentioned concepts, it’s really only a matter of time before Belgian retail players launch similar innovations. To me, there’s no doubt that clothing chain JBC is a strong contender. In its Innovation Lab in Hasselt, this company is working in co-creation with customers, start-ups and businesses on impressive innovations, optimising the shopping experience for the end customer. The smart changing room, with computer screens offering personalised advice and JBC employees receiving notifications of customer questions, is only the beginning of something much bigger in my opinion.
It’s interesting that both smaller and larger retail establishments may find themselves forced into partnerships with large companies such as Amazon and Google once these arrive on our shores. You can see them sending out feelers already - the availability of Amazon Prime and soon also Amazon Echo and Google Home, the combined voice-activated assistant and speaker, are good examples. There are a few bottlenecks currently hindering rapid adoption of these virtual assistants though. First and foremost there is the language barrier - so far, these devices can only be controlled using English. Additionally, the related applications are far from attuned to the Belgian market regarding ease of use and design. A third barrier is the difficulty consumers experience in obtaining one. Even so, these companies will conquer these issues sooner rather than later. Before you know it, the big players will be present, ready to shake things up here too. Those companies that keep quietly to the side-lines will find themselves to be collateral damage.
3. In 2018, artificial intelligence is first
However, my glass is always half full, so I am anticipating a rosy future. 2018 will be a decisive year not just for retail, but for all industries. Anyone wishing to meet his or her consumers’ ever-stricter requirements will have to change his or her company’s tack. The only way to future-proof your organisation is to start implementing an AI-first strategy today. Yes, as the title of my book indicates, the next 12 months will focus firmly on artificial intelligence, chatbots and automation. Such a strategy offers three unmissable advantages.
The “faster than real-time customer service” is probably the biggest benefit. For example, the power of AI lies in its ability to let companies predict issues in order to anticipate them. In other words, customer service becomes proactive instead of reactive. Will you get stuck in traffic on your way to the airport tomorrow? You might then receive a message from your airline’s chatbot, suggesting you change your flight. The advantage to the end user is simultaneously the second benefit of an AI-first strategy: improved ease of use.
The third is hyper-personalisation, an alternative to general segmentation. Companies are expected to no longer cluster customers in traditional groups, but to take their individual requirements into account. Bots are there above all for the repetitive tasks, providing human employees with more time to address complex situations and take care of customers in general. In retail, we see that the majority of employees are currently engaged in operations, but soon the focus will shift to the customer. And that is the biggest challenge of any age. Technology can be programmed, but to achieve a culture of customer experience, the policy must change. It’s up to management to ensure that the employees commit to the company DNA. Need it be said that AI has the power to make your company more human?
Steven Van Belleghem has spent his entire career exploring the impact of digitalisation on the customer experience. Today, he is an international speaker at companies and events, presenting tales from his research and books with great enthusiasm. Additionally, Steven is an entrepreneur: he is co-founder of the inspirational company Nexxworks and co-founder of social media agency Snackbytes. He has meanwhile written four books on his area of expertise.