Multi-channel clarity

Just ahead of the blizzards hitting New York in late-January, the retail technology industry stormed on the US city for Retail’s Big Show, organised by NRF, with 34,000 influential players keen to hear about the latest innovations from the 580 exhibitors. Glynn Davis reports

Many of the technologies on display related to solutions addressing the ongoing issue retailers have with ensuring they are relevant in an increasing multi-channel world. This theme has been in evidence for some years and at the 2016 event there was a clear recognition that it is only possible to deliver a coherent multi-channel proposition to customers if there is full visibility of inventory across all retailers’ channels.

Speaking at NRF, Shane Finlay, head of digital for retail in UK and Ireland at SAP, stated that for many established retailers there has been a reluctance to undertake the wholesale change required on their existing infrastructures to achieve this single view, but that this is now changing.

“For many the tipping point is being reached where it costs more to not do their business right than to do it right. We’re now in the teens of percentage of revenues online and the losses they are incurring are greater than the costs of upgrading. They need to bite the bullet and get on with it,” he suggested.

The need for improved inventory management and better stock visibility had led to a renaissance for RFID, which was difficult to avoid at NRF this year. It appeared to have a much greater presence than Beacons, which were all the rage last year. Su Doyle, North American Field Marketing at Checkpoint, said the rejuvenation was being fuelled by retailers now looking at RFID in terms of how it could impact positively on some of their important KPIs: “If people just ask about the price of tags then they are not serious and don’t have a business case.”

Tesco is among a growing number of retailers who have recently committed to the adoption of RFID, which has enabled automated predictive replenishment that has dramatically improved availability. Matt Newby, head of technology - stores stock, at Tesco, commented: “We tracked it for a number of years before investing in it. In May we did a trial [on F&F clothing] in three stores and now it's live in 200 stores. And will be in 500 soon. We now serve our customers better as the time spent counting products has been reduced by 93 per cent. We ensure all our colleagues are on the shop floor during the peak windows and not going to the stock rooms to look for goods.”

Levi’s is also testing RFID in its San Francisco stores. Using Intel’s Retail Sensor Platform it has located scanner units near the stores’ ceilings, with each having the capability to continuously monitor the movements of RFID-tagged items across an area measuring up to 250 sq ft. As well as the greater visibility of stock levels and knowing the positioning of items it can also give insights such as highlighting products that keep being tried on but are then returned to the shelf, which could indicate they are poorly sized.

It was also evident at NRF 2016 that RFID is now moving beyond just clothing and into other categories. Checkpoint revealed that pilots are taking place with major grocers and health & beauty retailers in Europe and the US. The former have recognised that RFID tagging on meat products can deliver measurable benefits by better management of expiration dates. Doyle reveals that the trials have shown a 35 per cent decrease in waste, a 50 per cent reduction in labour, and a 7 per cent increase in sales as a result of better handling of promotions ahead of expiry dates.

This year BT was showcasing its conceptual Alexander Black fashion store, which also involved numerous RFID readers that linked many of the initiatives on display such as enabling images of goods to be displayed on large interactive digital screens, allowing employees to pull up additional product information on their tablets devices, and in the changing rooms customers could view additional product details on digital screens as well as request different sizes. These tasks flash up on the sales assistants’ tablet and the items are easily located using the RFID capability in the store.

Utilising data and technology to deliver improved customer service in-store was a major feature this year. Size Stream was showcasing a sizing solution for Brooks Brothers using Intel’s RealSense chip technology, which takes an infra red and a regular photo of the customer to create hundreds of data points that can then create a 3D model of the person to determine the perfect fitting shirt.

Michelle Tinsley, director at Intel, said: “It takes time to measure customers but with this technology the two photos help generate all the data points that are needed in seconds rather than 20 minutes.”

Using the same technology Volumental has created a 3D digital foot measuring solution that is being used by US department store Nordstrom. It sizes up the customer’s feet and can then recommend specific shoe styles. It can also add this information to the customer’s profile that Nordstrom holds on its regular shoppers, which can then be pulled up by the sales assistants on their tablet devices to deliver a more personalised service.

GoInStore is delivering service to a new level with its solution that Aman Khurana, co-founder of GoInStore, observed: “Bridges the gap between in-store and online by connecting sales experts in the stores with online customers.”

It is working with the likes of Liberty and Heal’s to enable sales assistants who are expert in certain areas to be called upon by online shoppers to answer questions about products. An assignment engine determines who is best suited to helping and the selected sales assistant then uses Epson Moverio smart glasses with camera capability to give the customer a visual and audio experience direct from the shop floor. The sales assistant also has visibility via their glasses of customer information that has been pulled up from the retailer’s CRM system.

This need to know your customer better and use this to deliver personalisation was inescapable at NRF 2016. Savio Thattil, CIO of Sephora, said: “Eighty per cent of our customers are in our loyalty programme and we’ve been piloting beacons in 20 stores to recognise them. This information on the customer combined with analytics means we can help them find something new. Customers want ‘newness’ and we need to have the personal information and advice [to hand] for them.”

The next step on from traditional analytics is to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. A pioneer in this area is outdoors specialist The North Face that recently launched its Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) that it has created with Fluid using IBM's Watson AI technology.

Cal Bouchard, director of e-commerce at The North Face, stated that the company uses the tool to enable shoppers to find the most suitable products on its website: "They can find the right products and have a great online shopping experience. Our online shop had shown products through search and filter tools but we wanted a more personal, intuitive way [for them to find products] with natural language.”

Customers are posed a series of questions that enables XPS to hone in on the ideal product for their specific requirements. During a pilot period as many as 75 per cent of the people who used it said they would use it again and the most benefit was gained by those customers who did not know anything about the products they were looking for. It has been rolled out to North Face’s full 3,000-product catalogue.

"It's super promising," said Bouchard, which is a sentiment no doubt shared by many of those at NRF this year as they are now firmly getting to grips with many of the challenges that multi-channel poses. Whereas there might have been hints of despair in the past, it has been replaced with much more hope and recognition of the opportunities available.

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