With 100+ speakers on stage at the Retail Technology Event, the possibilities and insights were endless. But what was the word said more than any other in the two days? Well, it comes as no surprise with the tumultuous state of the last few years; everyone was talking about innovation, innovation, innovation.
How will retailers use this new technology, and these new ideas, in their day to day? That’s where we come in. We’ve pulled out the top takeaways from the event so you can put them into action!
The future is now, and that’s where our first speaker comes in. Let’s take a look.
Intentions & Behaviours: An Ethical Look At Customer-Centric Marketing
Chief Architect at Primark, Paul Sims, is fascinated by technology. He’s also pretty cautious about its consequences. Sound very sci-fi, right?
But most significantly, he wants to look at behaviours from a tech perspective, and ask “Can good and evil be applied to tech?”. Well, the short answer is…maybe. In his talk at The Retail Technology Show, Paul went big on tech ethics.
But first, Paul had to delve into what makes humans tick, before he could figure out how tech can be used to influence them. He focused on the theory of planned behaviour, stating that it’s all about how people feel, that they relate to people like them, and that they like to feel confident in their decisions. Basically, the more control we think we have, the stronger our intentions are to perform that task or action. But does influencing this using technology mean that tech is ethically dubious?
Well, Paul thinks that there should always be a human touch. Algorithms aren’t inherently bad, they just need to advise, guide, and inform customers in a personalised way that avoids any overt creepiness. This can be done with human guidance.
Basically, Paul’s big thing is this: humans and robots should work together. Technology should enable and empower employees. Automating the algorithm is not the answer, it should be combined with human knowledge and expertise.
For example, he relayed an experience he had with a clothing company. He received a personalised email detailing his favourite colour, number of purchases, and more thanks to his loyalty to the shop. Combining creative ideas and copywriting of the human marketer and the numbers of the algorithm, the company created a very successful and meaningful campaign.
Remember, loyalty is about trust. Can a consumer trust a retailer if its algorithm is so influential? Without humans, there is no human touch. For Paul, algorithms can not only be used in unethical ways, but they can also be highly ineffective.
Personalisation is key in customer relationships. With tech such as AI, a majority of the responses and solutions are generic, and often give answers based on what people have asked before. So, this is all about people like your customer, not your customer in particular.
So, this was Paul’s main thesis: retailers should be data-informed, rather than data-driven. AI engines have all the data in the world, but what you’re getting back is a generic response – the complete opposite of personalisation.
Engines should be tools, not solutions. They should augment your team in a cool cyborg way, not replace them. David Eagleman suggests that the brain is split into the conscious and subconscious, and the subconscious services problems to the conscious brain. Paul suggests we use AI as a separate part of our subconscious, using it to inform our conscious brain and using the information provided to our advantage.
There’s a fine line between an algorithm being creepy and being helpful, and what prevents this is a human touch. It’s all about augmentation not replacing. Data-informed, not data-driven.
Fireside chat interview: how can retailers maximise customer retention when customers are being more cautious in their spending habits?
This rapid-fire interview with Constanze Freienstein, the previous CEO of Lands’ End, delved into retention and loyalty in the year 2023, where changes happen constantly and rapidly. But something that can weather the storm even in difficult financial times is loyalty.
Constanze is all about customer obsession. It is, after all, what retail is all about. Customer centricity is at the heart of any retail company – a loyal customer is the true value generator for your business.
But what defines a loyal customer? Well, Constanze says it’s when they have started to engage with different categories in your business, and are buying on different occasions. Say you have a customer who buys a specific toothbrush online. If they start buying toothpaste and dental floss on your site, they’re on their way to becoming a loyal customer. If they start buying on Christmas, as well as Valentine’s Day, or other holidays, they’ve started seeing your brand as a part of their life.
Basically, they are building a relationship with your brand, and this becomes brand advocacy. This is the ultimate measure for retention, Constanze says, and every customer-centric organisation should keep this in mind. After all, value is not measured in transactions, but advocates.
But how can you spot, and also interact, with these advocates? Well:
- This starts with defining what an advocate is. For Constanze, this is a customer who is showing an evolving engagement in the brand, and who is speaking up for the brand
- Customers must know that you like them and see them. Don’t forget to tell them that the brand they love, loves them back. This builds trust.
- All of this goes way beyond the customer lifecycle, if you have a customer speaking to other customers, the customer lifecycle is less like a circle, and more like a pinwheel – constantly turning and generating income.
So, it’s important to shift the metric away from the transactional. You should define yourself by what is valuable about the customer to the brand, and vice-versa. A customer can be so much more than just transactional.
Businesses must constantly test and learn. It’s all about the art of building a customer base that continues to grow and brings in the right type of customer. To do this, you must find out what the customer does not like, what is slowing them down, and then fix it. This helps with further retention.
The key takeaways from Constanze’s interview are these: we must consider extensions of culture and how it plays into retention. Employees must be empowered to act. Businesses have to test and learn but do not need to jump on every fad. Basically, customer obsession is what retail is all about.
Essential Content And Social Hacks To Truly Engage Your Community
Now, it’s time for content. George Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Sole discovered, lost, and re-discovered the power of content, and walked the audience through his mistakes and triumphs.
His catchphrase for the presentation was “Stop selling to sell more”. Basically, this means to stop pushing to constantly sell, and instead provide value to your customers in other ways.
The key to this is creating good, consistent (and consistently good) social engagement and content. By following this approach in the ‘glory days’ of social media, Sole was generating thousands of likes and follows, with George standing in front of the camera, and at the forefront of the approach.
The company’s content angle was authenticity, at a time when brands didn’t put much emphasis on it. Posting 10-12 pieces of original content per week, George’s use base grew, as well as his revenue. It was the ‘unbiased’ approach of the company, which could give reviews and commentary on trainers in a way bigger companies could not.
But what were the things the company did well at the time? The success came from the:
- High quantity of content
- Multi-channel strategy
- Regular experimentation
- Engagement with community
- Face to camera
But the content wasn’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. But that’s what made it successful. After all, George says, perfectionism holds people back. When something falls flat, you haven’t spent money and time on that one piece. You still have the time to spend elsewhere.
The company also saw the value in a community. Every comment counts, after all. Sole took the time to reply with value to every individual. Value is the key; a half-done comment is just as good as no comment at all. The brand is clearly not listening to the customer. It’s about giving heavily to the audience, without them having to give back in return. After all, an audience doesn’t want to be sold to constantly.
So, what went wrong? Well, George took a step back from content. This took away the consistency of the hosts and weakened the brand image. There was more competition in the market, SEO rank declined, and most importantly they began to focus heavily on the development team. They went from giving to their audience, to taking.
After noticing these issues, Sole decided to jump back on content. They focused on creating more educational and entertaining content for their audience and provided daily community engagement. They’ve scaled face-to-camera content across all channels, and now produce 15 pieces of content across multiple channels.
This led to a 47% increase in engagement across both channels and 31M organic views across TikTok and Instagram in just 30 days.
Remember, people buy from people, not from businesses.
Empowering Digital Transformation in Retail
Digital transformation is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It’s a necessity. In fact, it means the difference between futureproofing your retail company and failing to do so.
This is the premise behind Co-Founder of imageHOLDERS Adrian Thompson’s presentation. He aims to answer why digital transformation is key to the growth of all retail businesses, and the issues behind it. Let’s jump in.
There are two reasons why tech has become vital to success in the industry. One, retail has changed massively in the last 20 years. Secondly, tech has become more accessible, modular, and easier to use. But the core purpose behind the mentality of digital transformation has stayed the same; it aims to develop exceptionally engaging and compelling user-centric products that simplify the global use and acceptance of tech.
Basically, it’s about creating products that are at once high-tech and innovative, and easily recognisable and usable by customers. Think of an interactive touchscreen in a store – easy-to-use design, impactful, and aesthetically pleasing.
The most important thing to consider is the user journey. You must think about how customers enter the shops and the design and ergonomics of the store. Great solutions must be user-centric, and subconsciously easy to use.
This is where modular architecture comes in. It must be tailorable, customisable, designed to withstand obsolesces and simplified. Retailers must deliver remarkable and delightful solutions, in easy-to-recognise formats.
Being remarkable is important. This doesn’t mean painting the next Mona Lisa or developing a cure for all illnesses. Remarkability can be subtle, but it can never be passed over. To do this, change is inevitable. The big takeaway from Adrian’s talk is this – we must all be constantly embracing change.
Using AI to Deliver Increased Profit in Retail
John Mildinhall, Head of Data Science for Retail, Digital, and Technology for M&S, spoke to a packed room on the benefits of AI. The hot topic at the moment, AI has seeped its way into every facet of every industry, retail is no exception.
But how can we use it correctly?
Well, everyone knows about AI as generative. And John will get onto that. But what are the other applications for AI? Data science, that’s what.
The two current methods of delivering data science at M&S are data science products and vore data science. They have access to AI which automates the sales probing process, provides anomaly predictions and which stores are underperforming. Not only thins, but it will show how items performed and why.
Data scientists’ time is a valuable resource, and AI can help them focus on more complex tasks by handling forecasting at scale. Reusable data science assets, such as a product feature repository, can also be used to infer body positions for models, instruct photographers, and personalise website experiences for customers.
What are M&S’ key learnings with AI so far? Well:
- There must be an upfront agreement on value metrics
- The company maintains a relentless focus on what corporate finance are up to
- They receive end-to-end solutions early
- “Kill your darlings” – if something is an issue, remove it.
- Not everything is a product
- In forecasting, your advantage is scale.
AI is not all about chatbots and imagery. It can write code, turn data into a report, act as an agent working on data, and turn free text into structured data through data cleaning.
That doesn’t mean M&S is ignoring the power of Generative AI, however.
Virtual photoshoots and automated animated imagery for product display pages can help retailers expand their range and improve customer engagement, John acknowledges.
Hyper-personalised e-commerce experiences can be achieved through AI-powered recommendation engines, and improved automated image generation using computer-aided design (CAD) data can produce high-quality product imagery. Automated alt-text labelling can also improve accessibility for visually impaired customers.
While the benefits of AI in retail are clear, Mildinhall also acknowledged the risk of brand damage if not implemented carefully. This is something that will have to be considered in the future, with a human touch implemented alongside the technology.
So, what does the future of retail AI look like? Well, John considers vendor and in-house landscape integration to be crucial, that there will be scaled PoC machines, and we will see embedded data science advocates in businesses. But he also warns this: retailers must get ahead of the AI revolution by building ethics and governance systems right now.
AI is an exciting field with many possibilities, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. But with this comes a multitude of risks that could damage brand image and data if not implemented correctly. Basically, John’s message is this: watch this space.
Predicting How Key Innovations Impacting Retail Today Will Evolve By 2028
This panel discussion covered all the big topics from AI to sustainability, even to drones. That’s right, drones. It was an all-star lineup, with insights heard from:
- Jeannette Copeland, Technology Director, Ann Summers
- Chris Thompson, Information Technology Architect, Bravissimo
- Kris Hamer, Director of Insight, British Retail Consortium
- Paul Wilkinson, Product Leader, Deliveroo, Retail Innovation Expert, ex-Amazon & Tesco Labs, Deliveroo
The first item on the list was sustainability. The panel were asked what sustainability innovations will make the most impact in five years’ time, a topic in the industry where we’re seeing quick and constant evolving, shifting, and development, due to the concerns of consumers around the world. From demand comes innovation, after all.
Chris answered first, noting that Bravissimo was being changed significantly by the concept of sustainability, and had introduced green deliveries, reduced packaging, and even made steps to limit air freight.
Ann Summers, Jeannette’s company, had made steps to prevent overordering and has introduced digital IDs. With over £20M worth of viable products heading into landfills every year, each business has become aware of the impact, with Kris believing that second-hand item platforms will continue to grow.
AI was next on the agenda, of course. Similarly to other speakers over the two days, the panel agreed on the significance of AI technology, and the importance of the human touch. Kris believes that the use cases for AI will be worked out very soon, and will make a fundamental change in how we work. However, we will still be reliant on new knowledge. That’s where humans come in.
Chis’ company is highly focused on 1-2- customer interactions, so the use of AI is limited in order to provide the human element. However, they do use it for sales analysis. Christ believes individuals should use these technologies as background administrative assistants, who can act as a jumping-off point for tedious or difficult tasks.
Next, it’s what you’ve all been waiting for – drones. The panel agreed that drone delivery innovation in the retail industry is inevitable, but it faces significant obstacles such as societal acceptance and regulations.
However, companies like Google are already making progress with remote drone deliveries, with a reported capacity of 1,000 deliveries a day.
So, the future is not so distant. According to studies, 80% of retail baskets can be delivered by drones, but the trickiest part is the final mile, which is crucial to ensuring cost-effectiveness.
Another issue is that the development cycle for drone delivery technology is also quite long. The ‘final mile’ issue means that making sure the tech is both useful and cost-effective means the full realisation of the tech is still a few years away.
Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of drone delivery for the retail industry are significant and worth pursuing.
Next: innovations in automation. Changes and updates in retail automation have the potential to revolutionise the industry. But sometimes the classics work. While traditional checkout and self-service options have been around for years, it is all about the in-store customer experience, and what these customers expect and want. There’s no point automating your entire store, if your brand image is based on face-to-face interaction.
Kris, however, states that automation could be the key for some businesses. He stresses the need for automation to solve problems. As online retail sales continue to increase, it is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar stores. Automation can help lower costs and move labour onto customers with self-service options.
VR and AR was a hot topic. Augmented and virtual reality technology is gaining traction in the retail industry due to its ability to enhance the customer experience massively.
Kris highlighted the benefits of VR in retail, where customers can visualise paint and wallpaper options and ensure the correct fit before making a purchase.
AR/VR also allows development teams to design products in 3D, leading to improved design and production efficiency. However, customer acceptance remains a major barrier to the widespread adoption of AR/VR in retail.
Kris also pointed out that the challenge of returns must also be considered, and the potential benefits of AR/VR technology in reducing returns must be carefully weighed against the costs. Despite these challenges, AR/VR technology holds great promise for retailers who are looking to create more engaging and personalised shopping experiences for their customers.
The panel delved deep into the exciting changes we’re seeing in the retail space right now, but agreed on one thing in particular: the human factor in every business is vital. We must be aware of the ‘shiny new toy syndrome’ that many companies face, and consider what tech is right for us and our customers. Drones might not fix every problem after all.
It Turns Out The Robots Won’t Be Taking Your Job!
So, there you have it – a whirlwind tour of some of the most insightful sessions from the event. Whether it’s digital transformation, AI or customer retention in uncertain times all the sessions had two themes in common: innovations and the human touch.
Innovation will continue to drive positive changes in the retail industry, but humans will very much be in the driving seat. It turns out your job is safe from the robots, for the foreseeable future at least!
The Retail Technology Event was hosted at The Olympia in London, on 26th and 27th April 2023. All information in this article was taken from the various sessions at the event given by trusted speakers.