The Next Great Thing

At SPECS 2017 in Orlando, retail customer experience expert, Mike Wittenstein, founder of StoryMiners, shared ideas and evidence on how to convert five big trends into practical results. He promised—and delivered—50 specific take-aways to help the designers, builders, and maintainers in the audience adapt to what’s next comfortably and profitably. This article summarizes the highlights of his address.

“When considering what’s next, balancing tech, service, and profits are essential.”

The next great thing isn’t a piece of tech, an improved process, a branded message, or a fast-changing business model. It’s all this—at once.

The next great thing is retail itself.

Retail lies at the convergence point of some of the most profound changes any business can experience. More, it plays out in front of customers and the rest of the world in real time. Retail brands that quickly harness new ideas by learning the details that make them work well become the winners.

“The Next Great Thing Is Retail Itself!”

Here are five essential-and-already-underway trends. Mastering their details will separate your brand from the pack—and help you create more value for your clients and customers at the same time. Isn’t that the essence of the retail business?

#1

When customers bring their mobile devices into your store, you get two things. More opportunity and more responsibility.

The Opportunities

  • When customers use mobile phones to ‘find’ things, some signage costs go down.
  • Customers will exchange valuable data about themselves and their habits—If you serve them better.

The Responsibilities

  • You should support your customers’ devices (charging and physical security) as well as provide ‘invisible’ support (connectivity/bandwidth, payments, and data security).
  • Making your space more responsive (machine vision, dynamic displays, beacons) requires treating customer information with high degrees of confidentiality and care.

#2

Retail spaces are becoming more dynamic. Retail floorplans are shifting (season-to-season, week-to-week, and hour-by-hour) to include more fulfillment, activities, training, making, and gathering. In short, spaces are becoming more versatile with more space dedicated to doing and less to viewing—as customers favor experiences.

The Opportunities

  • Introducing new activities (training, demonstrations, interactive engagements) adds occasions of use and brings more shoppers to the store.
  • Rent expense can drop as new revenue-generating activities come into the store.
  • Customers show their appreciation for what stores do for them (provide free meeting spaces, offer AR/VR areas) by talking about them online and sending their friends.
  • Open formats connect the inside and outside; this results in a larger-feeling store and a more welcoming environment to passers-by.

The Responsibilities

  • Every facet of operations should be considered (customer safety, air quality, people security, noise control, theft reduction, lighting) carefully in multiple configurations.
  • Make sure that wireless access is plentiful (for both associate and customer use) and that line-of-sight dependent tech won’t be out of range or stop working as configurations change.
  • Adjust any location-dependent software (beacons, RFID, zones) as interiors change their shape and function.

#3

The Internet of Things (IoT) is making people smarter, work easier, and retail agiler. IoT is basically about connecting dumb devices that see, hear, measure, and report to smart software that makes sense of what the devices send it then takes appropriate action.

The Opportunities

  • Repetitive tasks disappear.
  • Devices can ‘talk’ to each other and act, reducing your team’s steps and workload.
  • Customization/personalization of services starts to feel more natural.
  • Anticipating customers’ needs is easier.
  • Stock-outs and supply chain issues happen less frequently.

The Responsibilities

  • Specify enclosures that don’t interfere with signals.
  • Make device access easy. (Devices now get replaced instead of repaired. If they are housed properly, current store personnel can do this work.)
  • Inform yourself of ‘invisible’ processes that IoT devices depend on so that you don’t inadvertently ruin cool experiences.

#4

When IoT devices, software, and systems work in the cloud, businesses move faster, employees get more done, and clients get happier. Because the cloud connects everything with everything, tasks that formerly could only happen in one place can now happen across time and distance. Many new retail innovations are coming from this very inexpensive new business design resource.

The Opportunities

  • Shopping (the choosing/deciding parts) can happen anywhere—separate from taking ownership or delivery.
  • Stores can reduce or remove administrative workloads for customers.
  • Customers can see the inside of their refrigerator while at the grocery store (just one of hundreds of ideas ;-)

The Responsibilities

  • Do things for customers rather than to them. This item should rise to the top of your strategy list.
  • Move security from nice-to-have to must-have.
  • Balance innovation, communication, and employees’ and customers’ willingness to adopt to change.

#5

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality has made a big splash and attracted much R&D funding from the entertainment sector. In retail, AR/VR’s most practical/profitable applications will be in educating (customers and employees), visual merchandising, and in the personalization and customization of products.

The Opportunities

  • Customers engage more deeply during the ‘compare’ stage of their customer journeys.
  • The virtual versions of ready-made, ready-to-wear, or expensive inventory items are never out of stock.
  • Presentations, product features, and adjacencies adapt according to customer preferences—seamlessly and without additional customer effort.

The Responsibilities

  • Remember that the customer’s AR/VR experience starts before and ends after the ‘tech.’ Manage the entire experience.
  • Keep people safe by designating safe zones for using equipment that alters a customer’s sense of vision, distance, hearing, or spatial reference.
  • Make sure to supply plenty of high-speed bandwidth. You want to keep the AR/VR users happy and make sure the spectators can share what’s happening on social media.

The next great thing is retail. It’s already a fast-moving business, and things are about to get faster, so:

Use customer experience design as a lens—for everything. Get agile. Build capabilities, not departments. If you’re a retailer, invite customers and vendors to your early meetings. If you’re a supplier, invite retailers and their clients to your initial meetings. Be vigilant about ROI bias (especially if it skews goals toward better sameness; retail success is about breakthroughs now). Learn on purpose. Build a ‘study store’ (one with all the bells and whistles so you can learn on-the-fly and export what works to other locations). Find out what customers care about most and become best at delivering that. Be willing to shift your business model, but never your values.

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