We’ve been following the dramatic shift in retail for years. Customer expectations are changing, and retailers have engaged in new initiatives and investments that are designed to meet the needs of their evolving customers. One of the hottest trends in retail today is conversational commerce. Ever since Apple introduced Siri in 2011, conversational interfaces have embedded themselves into the everyday lives of consumers. As of January 2018, 39 million Americans owned a voice-controlled smart speaker. And when it comes to commerce, voice shopping is spreading like wildfire. So, with all of the technology advancements coming to retail, why are retail stores still struggling?
Mediocre Retail Is Dead
The first misnomer is that store-based retail is dead. Instead, what is dead are mediocre retail experiences, as customers now reject them completely. And the reality is that not every retailer is in decline. According to the NRF and Forrester, 43% of retail leaders expect store counts to grow, while only 16% expect total store counts to decline in 2018. The reality today is that shoppers don’t think about channels; they only think of the brand and the seamless experience across touch points.
While there is a shift to digital channels, this doesn’t diminish the role of the store in the purchase decision. Perhaps the biggest issue is that traditional store metrics such as comparison sales and sales per square foot are antiquated and no longer demonstrate the value that stores represent. If you just look at these data points, expect your blood pressure to rise. Take a deep breath and look at performance more holistically.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing store-based retailers is the lack of investment that occurred during the Great Recession in 2008. During this time of decline, most retailers reduced store headcount and therefore diminished the role of the associate. Even though the economy is now humming along, retailers are just now getting back to basics and investing in their employees and stores.
Voice Technology To The Rescue
There is one technology that is emerging as a potential windfall that will improve store operations and also drive the customer experience. Voice technology and conversational interfaces hold the keys to success for many retailers because the technology allows associates to be more efficient when they are performing their tasks, while allowing them to provide excellent “heads up and hands free” engagement when they are with customers. And it’s not just the store employees that gain value. Fulfillment warehouses have been using voice picking to accelerate throughput and productivity of warehouse workers. So how does voice technology help customers and associates, and ultimately help tackle the challenges of retail? By:
Whether it be an interaction with a home-based device like Amazon Echo or Google Home, or using Theatro’s voice platform for retail associates, voice technology can significantly remove friction in the task at hand. In the store, voice technology removes friction by providing every associate access to critical information on-demand, with just a simple voice command. Conversational interfaces are 3X more productive than screen-based mobility solutions since humans can comprehend and speak faster than they can write or type. And because voice-based technology must be intelligent and understand the content of the user, responses tend to be personalized and optimized for the associate using the voice technology.
Enabling the on-demand associate
The best laid plans often go awry, and most retail associates are ill prepared to handle exceptions to the tasks at hand. Whether customers have complex questions, or new tasks emerge that are mission-critical, associates must be empowered to act on-demand and adjust their plans to meet the needs of customers and the business. Voice technology allows retail associates to be able to answer any customer question even on their first day, or receive and respond to a critical task alert directly in their ear. For example, voice’s simple and intuitive interface allows associates to simply ask for their next task, or query an inventory database to access information, all without having to consult a manual, pull out a smartphone or walk to a terminal.
Creating greater intelligence and insights
Never before seen associate forensics are possible to obtain when using a conversational interface. When employing voice technology for associates, retailers also gain insights on how associates are communicating to each other and to enterprise systems. Social graphs can help predict when associates are derailed and when they are succeeding. Voice technology also has the advantage of calculating the location of associates. Combining location data with communication patterns and sentiment analysis allows retailers to better support their teams with pinpointed and actionable analytics.
By leveraging all of the information above, retailers are able to utilize voice technology to drive advancements in personalization. Typically, personalization is a combination of product attributes and customer attributes coming together, recommending products or offers that are appropriate to the customer. However, when every associate is connected with voice technology, a third attribute — associate forensics — can be added to the mix, allowing retailers to assign the right associate to the customer/product engagement. In addition, since a conversational interface communicates to associates in their ear, personalization can be covert rather than overt.
For instance, associates can have customer insights communicated directly into their ear, helping drive engagement in-aisle. If an associate is interested in what items are in a customer’s cart, rather than moving their gaze to a screen to understand the insight, conversational interfaces can simply speak the information to the associate, allowing them to maintain engagement with the customer.
Voice Goes Mainstream
As the consumer base begins to embrace voice technologies, retailers also will need to embrace this technology for their own employees. Their employees will not only demand it (after all, they use voice tech at home), but customers also will expect employees to be connected due to the improved service levels that voice technology can provide.
And it’s not like voice tech will replace screen-based devices. The two mobile interfaces need to work seamlessly together, pushing content to screens with voice rather than using a small keyboard to type and search for content. This world is not far away, and retailers that seek to maintain a competitive advantage with their stores should be actively planning on how to implement voice technologies for their customers and their associates.
As SVP of Marketing for Theatro, Adam Silverman is responsible for driving all aspects of marketing including sales enablement, product management, corporate communications and market strategy. Prior to Theatro, he has held e-Commerce and marketing leadership positions for top tier retailers such as Musician’s Friend, Target, and Wet Seal. During that time, he led significant digital transformation projects including selection and integration of enterprise commerce applications; created award winning digital shopping experiences including the first social commerce application; and developed effective brand strategies. As Principal Analyst at Forrester, Silverman drove research and thought leadership of in-store technologies and strategies.