The smart use of technology has become an increasingly important factor for retailers to succeed. New trends and technology are introduced on a daily basis, and the only way to stay ahead of the competition is via short, mid and long-term planning. Michael Cohen, General Manager of LoyaltyOne’s innovation lab Zero Gravity Labs, shares three areas retailers should think about now for success in the future.
Understanding and utilizing new technology is an absolute requirement for success in today’s retail landscape. The introduction of e-commerce and the rise of social media has fundamentally changed the industry, forcing brands to think about and customize their customer experience in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. Gone are the days when only tech brands needed to emphasize on technology or innovation. Today, every consumer is a digital consumer, and very traditional businesses need to become digital-focused. Consumers expect that if leading companies (e.g., Facebook, Amazon, Uber) can utilize new technology to improve their experience, everyone should be able to do so.
The rate of introduction for new technologies designed to improve both back-of-house and front-of-house operations for retailers is incredible, making it impossible for brands to stay ahead of the curve by simply reacting in real time. Instead of focusing on solutions that are fully market-ready now, they need to learn, test and familiarize themselves with technologies that have just been introduced but may become table stakes in the next few years and beyond. What are these technologies? How will customers use them? How can they be applied to business to improve customer experience or to personalize offers and increase ease of purchase for shoppers?
This sounds like a daunting task, but for retailers willing to invest in a team of forward-thinking employees charged with looking to the future, the rewards are there for the taking. For brands interested in future-proofing their tech strategy, here are a few potentially disruptive trends and technologies to investigate in 2018.
Artificial intelligence has received a lot of headlines in the past year thanks to innovative companies like Amazon, Google and Layer 6 AI, which was acquired by TD Bank for $100M, but use of it hasn’t become widespread across every industry. In retail in particular, customers are demanding new levels of customization, and AI can be an incredible tool for taking companies’ efforts to the next level. Personalized marketing used to mean sending regionally targeted communications that included someone’s first name at the top of the email. AI can analyze customer data to do so much more, allowing companies to go from knowing where a customer is and what their purchase preferences are to being mindful that they do most of their shopping on a Thursday afternoon after work, and planning accordingly. Retailers need to consider how to put AI to work in this fashion to make marketing feel seamless instead of disruptive.
The Rise of Voice
The arrival of Siri heralded the beginning of the voice age, but we still have a way to go before the technology is completely ubiquitous. That said, usage of voice search in favor of traditional typing is growing by the year (comScore says 50 percent of searches will be via voice by 2020), and brands should plan now for what that means for their business. Early adopters of smart home tech and compatible AI assistants like Google Home and Amazon Alexa are witnessing firsthand the ease of use for voice activation, and it’s only a matter of time before the same technology can be applied to improving the customer experience for retailers.
Today, many consumers prefer to self-serve in the store. Even when store associates are available to answer questions, many shoppers decline their help in favor of self-service. In a world of AI and voice assistants, imagine how much better that self-serve process would work if customers only need to ask aloud, in plain language, where to find olive oil before an AI assistant in the store’s mobile app or available through a speaker positioned in the aisle not only answers but informs them which brands are on sale.
The surge of bitcoin has introduced most news readers to the idea of blockchain, but the technology could have implications far beyond the world of finance. Blockchain has the potential to be as disruptive for business as social media. The idea behind blockchain, offering trust, safety and stability without a centralized “safe space,” could have massive ramifications across every industry. With its arrival, consumers no longer need a central body to feel trust in a system, which will have a material impact on multiple industries and loosen the control centralized companies (like banks) exert. In the world of retail, this new decentralization will have implications for supply chains, tracking goods, proving the authenticity of or lack of tampering with products, and much more. Retailers should think long and hard about what that could mean for how they operate, and investigate what strategies they need in place to be ready.
It’s difficult to predict which trends and emerging technologies will have the most impact on an industry, and even harder to discern the best way for retailers to put them to work. What will seem intuitive in five years might seem outrageous now, and the only way for brands to bridge that gap is by investing in the research that takes them from hypothetical to practical. For those retailers looking to succeed in an environment where change is the new norm, figuring it out a few months ahead of the competition could mean years of leading the pack.