Solution Providers for Retail: Top 10 Retail Tech Trends for 2015

 

It is that time of year, when we look back and look forward, to see what has happened in retail tech and predict what might be important in the coming months. Here are my top ten choices and leading trends.

  1. Mobile and digital currencies will continue to increase. Payment options such as PayPal, Apple Pay and Bitcoin will become more mainstream, allowing consumers to use digital currencies to pay for more things. If you haven’t set up any of these technologies, now is the time to learn more about them.
  1. The iPad becomes the cash register. With the popularity of Apple’s iPad, more vendors are developing iOS-optimized versions of their traditional point of sale solutions. And the iPad-as-register will become more popular, even for smaller stores. VARs should bone up on the leading vendors in this space.
  1. Ordering ahead for in-store pickups. Target has had this for years, but it is becoming popular even for smaller retailers too. It should become the norm in the coming year. Customers don’t like waiting in line, and this is a nice convenience.
  1. “If you liked this, you will want to buy that.” Cross-selling has also become mainstream, thanks to early pioneering efforts from Amazon and other online retailers. Now in-store staff is doing this with in-person promotions. The trick is to do in a way to not annoy customers and drive them out without buying anything. It isn’t so much tech, but an after-effect of having the matching and suggestion online engine.
  1. The website will become even more of a digital hub. Stores that don’t have solid websites will suffer in 2015. Today’s website – and tomorrow’s – will have a quick way to find the closest store, peruse inventory, order online and have it delivered, send questions or comments to management, and download their latest smartphone app. And offer up exceptional user experience too. If you have neglected this side of your business, now is the time to get more involved.
  2. Expect to see more digital-based loyalty programs. Consumers are tired of carrying the cardboard or plastic rewards cards and looking for digital solutions, especially those like Starbucks that can turn into mobile payment apps.
  3. Social media campaign management tools are getting better, by necessity. Hybrid physical/online marketing will become more important in 2015, mixing both in-store and online deals. If you haven’t tried out any of the more than 100 different tools that are available in this space, now is the time to take a closer look and have your recommendations ready for when your clients need trusted advice.
  4. Mobile apps are becoming the major e-commerce vector. As we said in our column in June, Provide something unique for your store’s mobile app, or else build it into the overall general website and ensure that a mobile browser can view your pages quickly and responsively.
  5. Look towards the restaurant sector as a leading indicator of what’s in store for the rest of retail. Restaurant chains are slowly learning how to use connected technology to attract customers, deliver better customer digital experiences, and convince customers to return again and again. Unlike other online retail outlets, you can’t download your dinner, so the opportunity cost is huge for them to get their digital act together. Most of the lessons learned by restaurant chains—from both their successes and their mistakes—can be applied to other retail segments. For example, tablets are being used by waitstaff to track orders and by customers to play games and pay for their checks.
  6. Think about developing a total customer engagement platform for your clients, as we wrote about how 7-Eleven did this in the past year. These will help cement the VAR-client relationship too.

Solution Providers for Retail blog: How 7-Eleven Built Its Digital Guest Engagement Program From Scratch

Two years ago, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven had no data warehouse, no smartphone app for its customers, and had a loyalty program that still used paper punch cards. Since then it has built the beginnings of a digital customer engagement program. At the recent Teradata Partners conference in Nashville this week, they described how they did it.

All it took was finding the right VAR and spending some significant cash.

Well, not quite. As you can imagine, there was a lot more involved, given that the company has over 10,000 franchisees throughout the US and thousands more overseas. They first set some important goals:

  • Develop actionable insights into what their customers bought, when, and why. “Prior to this program, we had none of this information,” said Robert McClarin, the senior CRM manager for 7-Eleven Inc. and one of the presenters at the conference session where they described what they did. “We knew we had a tremendous gap in our knowledge.”
  • Develop an initial IT infrastructure that could handle several elements of a total customer engagement platform. While they began with a loyalty program, they wanted something that was extensible for years to come, including a rich data warehouse that is constantly being updated from their point-of-sale system in all their retail stores.
  • Dramatically increase incremental purchases and customer visits. They wanted to build a program that would attract five million members during its first year. They also wanted to justify the expense of the program – which was considerable and in the multiple millions of dollars – with the additional in-store revenues generated, when measured with year-over-year same store sales.
  • Establish a personal relationship with each guest that would be natural and seamless. “If you want to be closer to your customers, you have to be on their smartphones,” said McClarin. More than two thirds of their customers carry smartphones currently, according to store surveys. They also wanted to leapfrog some of their competitors who built early smartphone apps.

Then they put together a three-step program and issued requests for proposals to find the right VAR. They humorously called the three steps “crawl, walk and run.” After getting numerous RFPs, they settled on Brierley+Partners. That company was selected in a recent Forrester Wave report as one of the leaders in the loyalty CRM space. The company is also a Teradata VAR and used several modules for the project. Brierley’s office is located near the 7-Eleven headquarters in Dallas and worked closely with the chain’s CRM and IT staffers to build the first data warehouse and develop the initial smartphone app.

Speaking of which, they spent time to make their smartphone app engaging and yet simple to use. Along with digital coupons, the app contains features such as a store locator function and a feedback area where customers can suggest new features. The user interface is clear and clean, which also helps boost usage.

 Their first foray was to come up with a coffee loyalty program that offered everyone a seventh cup free. The program coincides with a celebration marking 50 years where the chain served up the first ever to-go coffee cups. Since they, 7-Eleven has built quite a business out of selling a lot of coffee – more than a millions cups daily worldwide. Prior to the digital program, as I said earlier 7-Eleven stores used a paper punch card to keep track of these purchases. “Our franchisees were asking us to replace this with a digital program, and so they were very much on board with our program,” said McClarin.

So far the program is very successful: more than 3.2 million customers are part of the program, which is close to target for their goal., since 2,500 customers are joining daily. Year-over-year coffee sales are up for the program participants and the stores that they shop at, and they have given away more than 52,000 cups of free coffee since the program began in March 2014. One good outcome: the program has had no impact on the checkout experience. McClarin said that so far they have made it easier for customers to checkout, even though payments are not part of their app – unlike competitor Starbucks who was one of the first to offer this.

They also have seen a shift in sales to higher profit margin items for program members, and members who are shopping more days per week too. The program offers customized coupons for each customer based on their shopping patterns and is localized for each store too, which increases the feeling that the program is personalized just for that customer. For example, “a coupon could offer a discount on coffee in the early morning hours, fresh food around lunch time, and another discount for DVD rentals at the in-store RedBox video kiosk,” said McLarin.

 

Pros and Cons of Responsive Design vs. Developing Mobile Apps

In my last post last month about designing your store’s websites, I mentioned that you should provide something unique for your store’s mobile app or else just enhance the overall general website itself. This point bears some further discussion as to when should you choose between the two approaches. It isn’t cut and dried, as I found out after examining dozens of different chain restaurants’ sites and mobile apps for a report that I co-wrote last month.

Most modern websites should implement responsive design techniques today. This means that they can automatically adjust how they place content in the browser window, and move column sizes and illustrations around as the window gets smaller for dealing with mobile devices, or larger for desktop screens. If you don’t know anything about this concept, I suggest reading up here. Nick Pettit, who wrote that blog entry for Treehouse Island, says, “Screen sizes and resolutions [are] widening every day, and creating a different version of a website that targets each individual device is not a practical way forward. This is the problem that responsive web design addresses head on.”

Here are two compelling reasons to choose to develop a specialized mobile app:

  • One is that your general website still uses Flash, and you don’t want to redo it. As you know, all iOS devices don’t do Flash, so they won’t be able to manipulate your content. Of course, that Flash-based site is getting pretty long in the tooth, so you might want to schedule when you are going to update your code and get rid of it once and for all. You know it is just a matter of time. I still come across numerous Flash-based sites that are just frustrating and want to make me toss my tablet across the table.
  • You can concentrate on features that mobile users need most, such as store locators or hours of operation. Or test market something new that isn’t on your general site and see if it is worth adding for all visitors. This is what Starbucks does for its mobile app, which is packed with features such as offers for free music tracks and the ability to pay for your drinks (which is hard to implement on a general website).

And here are two reasons to make your site more responsive:

  • You don’t have to maintain two different code bases, and can add features that will instantly benefit all of your visitors. This is by far the biggest advantage of using responsive design, and also has the added benefit that you don’t have to worry about image placement, column widths and other things that date back to the Cretaceous Period of the Web (say, 1996).
  • Your site will appear more attractive to more visitors, and become more engaging too. There is something just more snappy and clean about responsive design and how the text flows around the windows and images that just make it more appealing, at least IMHO.

Obviously, it is a balancing act between mobile-first and responsive design, but perhaps your situation will gravitate towards one or the other method. The important thing to keep in mind is what is the app or the site trying to communicate, and how can you be the most effective?

Want to learn more about what I found in my restaurant research of what the top chains are doing with their digital strategies? You can download a portion of our executive summary of the report here.

Solution Providers for Retail: Tasty Apps Mean More Than Appetizers for Restaurants

slide-5-638This week is a popular one for going out to dinner, yet when it comes to restaurant-oriented mobile apps, love isn’t always in the air. About half of the top 100 restaurant chains don’t have any mobile apps, and many have frequent crashes or contain obvious coding errors.

The best restaurant mobile apps combine several features, including mobile ordering, digital payments, location awareness and more.

You can read the entire post on Solution Providers for Retail here. And you can sign up to get the full restaurant report that Ira Brodsky and I are working on when it is ready here.

How Does IT Serve the Restaurant Industry?

Over on the site SolutionProvidersfor Retail.com tomorrow at 1pm ET, I will be holding a Webchat. We will be discussing my recent research of the top 100 restaurant chains and sharing how they use various technologies, including best practices for their chain websites, essential features for their smartphone apps, how they use and misuse social media networks, and their use of online ordering and digital loyalty programs. We will discuss what they’ve discovered works well and what doesn’t, how interactive technologies such as wait staff tablets and integrated POS terminals can impact business. In addition, we will come up with recommended best practices.

You can see the slides here:

Time to Stop Sweethearting

 

As we move in February, our thoughts turn towards the 14th and celebrating our sweethearts. But one place where sweethearts aren’t welcome is in the retail store checkout lane. There the practice refers to confederates who allow shoppers to steal merchandise.

As more retailers deploy self-checkout lanes, the temptation to steal goods increases markedly. As someone who tries to use the self-checkout in my local grocery store, I can report that I have done this on occasion but not deliberately: just because the self scanning machines can be so agonizingly frustrating to use.

Sweethearting can be found in any retail establishment, and stopping it isn’t easy. Checkout clerks can skip ringing up a particular item or items, or override the automatic scanned price with something lower, or just scanning one item in a group. All it takes is a fraction of a second and a nod of the head and your items are literally walking out the door, free of charge.

Some analysts state that the practice racks up more than $13 billion of annual losses worldwide, with more than 40% of all checkout clerks doing it at one time or another during their employment. That’s not just a bunch of candy hearts and chocolates! Indeed, the more that stores investigate the practice, the more they find that pretty much all kinds of items are stolen through sweethearting.

 

In the past there were mostly behavioral mechanisms with very observant loss prevention security personnel to watch for personal interactions or to examine the sales volumes per employee. But these methods are inexact and not very dependable.

So technology has a better mousetrap, or should I say candy trap? A variety of computer vision vendors are involved in selling anti-theft systems, including StopLift.com, 3VR.com and Brickstream. All three sell through the channel. The systems coordinate recorded video images with analysis of the checkout lane actions, and discover when an item hasn’t been scanned properly or when a clerk has overridden the posted price.

As an example, the StopLift ScanItAll product is setup to monitor the video feed from the store security cameras. It is looking at the interaction between shoppers and their intended purchases. It then flags suspicious transactions for the loss prevention department to review. The system also identifies the specific cashier, the date and time of the incident. Users of the system can jump to specific incidents in the video, or can click on a transaction receipt and then call up the revelant video stream around that transaction. And of course, everything is Web-based too so you don’t need anything besides a browser to use it.

In places where these systems have been deployed, retailers report that the losses from sweethearting have been eliminated almost completely. Part of the success is that people know they are being watched, but certainly a bigger part is that you can get actionable data quickly on thefts.

So enjoy your valentine, and think about taking a closer look at these technologies to have in your retail security portfolio.

 

Webinar: Integrating Cloud Services Management Into Your IT Operations

Getting into the cloud is a lot easier than understanding how to make it a part of your overall IT operations. In this webinar, I look at ways that you can better govern your cloud deployments and make use of the best practices of IT that you use for your own servers. I will show you more than a dozen different services that can help you understand your cloud computing costs, figure our better ways to make your cloud infrastructure secure, and better manage your cloud deployments.

The webinar is held this Thursday at 12:30 pm ET.

You can register for the webinar here, download the white paper Dec Cloud Integration here, and view the slides that I will use for the event here.

MSPtv Webinar: How the Private Cloud Can Be More Secure

Security concerns remain one of the biggest obstacles to cloud computing adoption, even as spending on cloud-based solutions accelerates. Users welcome the affordability and scalability of cloud offerings, but many remain fearful about the potential for network breaches and leaks. These fears typically focus on public cloud offerings, and as such, they open opportunities for IT service providers to extol the virtues of secure private cloud environments.

Today I will be doing a webinar for MSPtv on this subject. You can tune in here.

You can download my slides here.

How to outsource your helpdesk

Next Thursday I will be doing a webinar for MSPtv on how to outsource your helpdesk. You can register here. 

As long as there are IT users, there will be a need for helpdesk support, and that is not about to change any time soon, no matter how reliable and user-friendly the technology gets. For solution providers, the service is a must to deliver value to their clients, but it’s expensive and can be a drain on staff resources. Fortunately for them, there is a low-cost alternative: outsource your helpdesk to a trusted vendor partner. The trick, of course, is finding the right partner.

Here are my slides for the webcast.