How can specialist retailers get closer to their customers?

In many cases, a customer needs more than just picking an item off the shelf or opening a box left on the doorstep – they need domain expertise

Retail has undergone a huge transformation in the past two to three years. The online and e-commerce shift had begun long before Covid-19, as Amazon went from book retailer to the everything store – as long as they could pack it in one of their trademark boxes. Pandemic pressures, subsequent supply chain disruptions and growth in a mass of digital market entrants have only quickened this. 

Digital retailers have the supply chain covered with expansive global networks, allowing them to keep prices low and delivery times short. It is becoming increasingly challenging for generalist bricks-and-mortar retailers to compete with e-commerce giants on these terms.

The answer lies in the skills, expertise and knowledge that set specialist retailers apart from low-contact market entrants such as Amazon, Uber and others. This is where retailers offering services and expertise have the edge – think DIY stores mixing paint and advising on building materials, key-cutters, dry-cleaning experts, home repairers, car parts providers and many more. These retailers rely on the skill of their employees to provide vital services to customers. 

Even on my recent beach holiday, I witnessed this first-hand when renting a paddleboard – I spoke to a man renting boards from a tiny shop in an extremely isolated location, but his experience and equipment knowledge was second to none.

The challenge for specialist retailers becomes how best to scale this knowledge, expertise and fantastic service across every customer touchpoint and all of their employees. 

Mobile retail takes services direct to the customer

The pandemic has prompted an increasing number of retailers to augment their physical estate with services that bring the shop to the customer’s front door. This is where the rise of mobile retail services has taken hold, providing pre-booked services with minimal contact and disruption to the customer. The pros for the customer are many – professional services delivered at their convenience, backed up by digital communications to keep them looped in on slot times, stock levels and arrival expectation. 

From a retailer’s perspective, a move to mobile services can be as simple as procuring a fleet of vehicles and putting its experts on the road. But at the back end, they must ensure their software infrastructure is up to the challenge. When slots are promised and services are often vital for the customer, missing an appointment is not an option. 

It is service not with a smiling arrow, but with slick infrastructure that works.

This means making sure they have a software system to match the end-to-end mobile customer journey and expectations. That means taking data and putting this journey together, from offering available slots online through to order processing, stocking vans, route optimisation and last-mile delivery. 

With a robust software system in place, scale and efficiencies can quickly be realised. At Halfords, for example, we have been growing our mobile service vans to fit tyres and car parts over the last three years. We developed our own software, Avayler, to manage this process and ensure the expansion to mobile operations was successful and profitable. Very quickly, we were able to increase productivity by 20% on top of our initial projections. 

Digital touchpoints essential in the physical store

Back in the physical store, manual spreadsheets and creaking retail platforms for Epos, stock management and appointment bookings cannot provide the level of consistent service and support required by both employees and customers in today’s ultra-competitive retail environment.

Retailers must augment colleague expertise through digital means to ensure a more consistent and customer-centric shopping experience. Tablets and mobile devices should be on the shop floor to enable employees to quickly answer customer queries, check stock levels and even execute a purchase. 

Even when employees are carrying out services on a customer’s equipment, they can use tablets to photograph or film work done and deliver this straight to the customer to ensure the highest possible standards of quality and safety. 

This assisted selling makes sure employees across the retail business, regardless of their location or skill level, have access to the information they need to ensure a customer-centric interaction.

Technology provides the CX driving force

A recent PwC report underlines the vital role technology will play in driving a more customer-centric retail future as consumer expectations continue to rise. The report found that speed, convenience, knowledgeable help and friendly service are prioritised by consumers. These qualities were highlighted by nearly 80% of all survey respondents as being the most important elements to ensure a positive customer experience.  

The report says: “Those who get it right prioritise technologies that foster or provide these benefits over adopting technology for the sake of being cutting edge. Customers expect technology to always work (and are unlikely to take note of new technology unless it malfunctions or interrupts the seamless, friendly experience). They want the design of websites and mobile apps to be elegant and user-friendly; they want automation to ease experience. But these advances are not meaningful if speed, convenience and the right information at the right time are lacking.”

Never forget, experienced specialist retailers have a secret weapon – their domain expertise and knowledgeable colleagues. They must use this to get closer to the customer – a strategy that will be crucial for survival in a volatile industry. Technology will provide the means to take this value proposition both inside and outside the confines of traditional bricks- and-mortar stores. 

The race is on to move from being simply product-centric to becoming truly customer-centric in the brave new retail world.

Andy Randall is group COO at Halfords.

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