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Lately, though, this “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” mindset has gone by the wayside more frequently than is ideal. We know that the most enjoyable and exciting shopping experiences happen when it’s clear that associates care not just about the retail and product brand but also their interactions with their customers. However, we often question whether such an experience is enough to entice people to buy from the same brand at any other store location

The Rising Complexity of “Getting It Right”

Retail has always been a detail industry. However, the many forms of data captured on a daily business in explosive numbers have only made keeping everything “just right” more challenging as demand for personalized customer experiences continues to escalate.

For decades, store managers and associates of some of the world’s top retail brands lived, ate, and breathed by the mantra “retail is detail.” If every store gets every display, floor map, and promotion “just right,” the customer will always know what to expect no matter which location they are visiting.

Let’s start with the most variable factor of the in-store experience equation: people. From employees to customers, people’s expectations are higher than ever. Some want to be instantly gratified, while others are accustomed to a high standard of service. And in all cases, shoppers are used to comparing prices on ecommerce sites while browsing the sales floor.

The moment shoppers experience subpar service, they are not shy about moving on to a competing retail or product brand, online or further down the street. For brick-and-mortar stores, every customer lost is felt more deeply than their digital counterparts because they face higher infrastructure and labor costs and profoundly tighter margins.

In response, many retailers have evolved to adopting an omnichannel sales strategy – where their stores serve as last-mile fulfillment centers. When customers expect a seamless online-offline shopping experience, this can be a risky move for retail stores. The strategy increases the complexity of an already detailed space and makes out-of-stocks more frequent when order pickers and customers take products from the same shelf.

Without real-time, granular insight into inventory both on store shelves and in the stockroom, stores cannot adequately serve the on-site customers well plus thrive in an omnichannel setting. Meanwhile, employees grow only more frustrated that they cannot serve customers as well as they know they should.

However, these hiccups in the customer experience are more than just a nuisance for associates. When two or more of these gaps appear in one trip to the store, customers begin to sense the store team may not be knowledgeable or able enough to help them find solutions to meet their needs. And as the shortage of retail managers and associates continues, the ability to build a stable store culture of experienced sales staff becomes more challenging.

And this constant loop of subpar customer experience continues as long as physical retail operations remain complex. Even without an omnichannel strategy, retailers and their manufacturers do not have the adequate visibility they need to know which items are available at the shelf level. As a result, customer loyalty drops when they can’t find what they are looking for and shoppers quickly rely on ecommerce sites to purchase goods — the cost to sell in the physical store also rises.

A Digital Breakthrough in Omnichannel Consistency

But it’s not all doom and gloom for physical stores. By adding a digital touch to their overall shopper experience, retailers can improve how customers perceive their stores.

One of the fastest ways to optimize store consistency, regardless of whether a location serves as a last mile fulfilment center is the ability to capture, analyze, and share intelligence through on-site images. By using a camera app to take photos or videos of their store displays, consumer goods organizations’ field sales representatives can gain better insights into their physical stores’ sales efficiency and performance.

With the addition of image recognition and artificial intelligence, these images become a source of in-the-moment visibility into the core elements of retail. They include whether product prices are accurate, which stock is merchandised according to the agreed planogram, and how on-shelf availability impacts inventory movement.

It is not only consumer products businesses that can use this technology – it’s retailers as well! Field store operations teams can use this technology to gather intelligence on the relative performance of their stores without visiting them, relying on in-store personnel to provide the photos or videos. This approach allows operations teams to collaborate with their teams and merchants to optimize business performance, provide proof of promotion execution, and so on.

By taking their cues from the field operations team, store managers and associates can use the same technologies to assess what their customers need, which inventory quantities are low, and assign tasks to qualified and interested employees. For example, an associate with a flair for merchandising health and beauty products can be tasked with creating a table display for a new item. Meanwhile, another team member who prefers backroom tasks over display and merchandising tasks is responsible for processing a shipment delivery or customer order in the backroom.

As part of the training process, images can be used to measure performance improvement day to day and provide evidence of areas for improvement. This information can then be linked to which shifts were more productive over others and the condition of overall store presentation.

The Importance of a Connected Retail Experience

Connecting information, insights, and collaborative engagement enable retailers to help customer express their individuality and establish lifetime relationships in every store. Companies that use these tools to break down barriers between functional units, collaborate across the retail network, and create a culture that attracts, motivates, and retains top talent tend to deliver a satisfying and engaging customer experience.

Steve Mauchline is a business architect in the North America Executive Advisory and Architecture Unit at SAP. Min Chen is CEO of Wisy, helping consumer products companies and retailers optimize their operations wisely with artificial intelligence and Internet of Things solutions.