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3 Ways Technology Can Improve Customer Experience This Festive Season

The agility of retail businesses across the globe has been put to the test over the past six months as the industry worked to stay afloat during the pandemic lockdown period as well as keep up with dramatic shifts in consumer shopping behaviours and preferences. Now retailers must prepare for the next big test: the peak trading period, what we fondly refer to here in the UK as the festive season.

Although the festive season rush typically starts on Black Friday (yes, Brits have adopted the US' post-Thanksgiving shopping event) and runs through the Boxing Day sales, many retailers are encouraging consumers to start their shopping earlier this year – possibly as soon as October.

With the need to generate cash, to store occupancy limits that warrant the need to stretch out the season to make room for all interested buyers, to concerns over shipping capacities and Amazon's decision to run Prime Day in mid-October, there are lots of reasons for retailers to want to pull demand forward.

As savvy retailers are now preparing for the busiest shopping season of the year to start even sooner, and in a retail environment dramatically altered by COVID-19, here are three ways technology will play an important role in customer experience:

1. Speeding Up the Shopping Journey via mPOS

Before the pandemic most retailers were focusing on ways to get customers to spend more time in bricks-and-mortar locations, with the thought that more time spent would increase basket size. My, how things have changed. Fast-forward to post-COVID-19 retailing, and the new goal is to provide shoppers with a safe experience while getting them in and out of stores as quickly as possible. So how can retailers use technology to decrease time spent in stores but increase basket sizes? One option is with mobile point of sale (mPOS) systems. These systems provide speed and flexibility to retailers and sales associates – something that is much needed in the era of COVID-19.

With the ability to ring up purchases on a mobile device like a tablet, store associates can assist customers in finding the products they need and then complete the transaction alongside the customer on the shop floor, whilst respecting appropriate social distancing, of course. This speeds up the shopper journey and can be a real game changer for stores with reduced staffs. In some cases, associates may even be able to use these devices to shorten long queues outside of stores for customers who know exactly what they plan to purchase upon entry.

2. Creating Space with Self-Service

Store design is another aspect of retail that has changed significantly over the past six months. Retailers have been removing fixtures, putting tape markers on floors and even installing acrylic dividers in order to create space so that both staff and shoppers can adhere to social distancing guidelines. Some retailers are also turning to technology to create space at the checkout – by offering self-service options.

Self-service checkout terminals, for example, allow customers to process their own purchases with minimal to no assistance from staff. This type of checkout had been becoming more popular in retail stores even before the pandemic, with a 2018 study from Whistl revealing that more than half of UK shoppers preferred to use self-checkouts.

Another self-service trend picking up steam is "scan and go" – which allows customers to use an app to scan the item they wish to purchase and then process their transaction from their own mobile device without needing to wait in a queue to check out. In fact, a 2019 study from Wirecard polled adults worldwide and found that more than 70% of consumers were interested in using scan-and-go apps to make a purchase. As 2020 has progressed, it is safe to assume that even more consumers are interested in self-service options due to the threats of the pandemic.

3. Fulfilment Flexibility Starts with Order Management

Order management could arguably be the most important technology that a retailer has in its technology tool belt – not only during the festive season, but also moving into 2021. After all, it's nearly impossible to deliver a satisfying experience to a shopper who can't order the products they want (or receive them via their desired fulfilment option).

Retailers that are best prepared for peak demand will be those that can optimise inventory across their estate, rather than putting stock into silos for online vs. in-store sales.

To prepare for an increase in e-commerce sales (and potentially a decrease in in-store sales), retailers should identify which stores can be used to help with fulfilment of online orders. In addition to turning some stores into distribution centres, retailers should also consider how to leverage click and collect. This fulfilment option could be especially critical in converting online sales in the week leading up to Christmas, as shoppers will want to ensure that they receive their orders in time. Not only does this increase the chance of closing the sale, but it gives store associates the opportunity to upsell customers during purchase pickups.

Retailers should also look at how click and collect in store can be extended to click and collect at curbside to offer additional convenience options for customers (and yet another way to help allay the concerns of cautious consumers).

Finding the Right Balance

Investing in the right in-store and omnichannel technology will be an ongoing area of focus for retailers as the world continues to adapt to the impacts of the pandemic. By identifying and understanding the evolving preferences of customers, retailers will be able to find opportunities to adapt their retail operations, systems and processes to improve customer experiences in Q4 2020 and beyond.