By Jeannie Walters
While innovation was clearly a popular topic for the attendees of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, leading to long lines and overcrowded panel discussions, it is still vexing for those in the retail industry.
The challenge, it seems, is around understanding what truly IS next. As #retailtech panelist Jennifer Jen Rubio, Global Head of Innovation at All Saints, said, "20 years ago, nobody asked retailers what their laptop strategy was."
Discussions around the ways customers interact with products and brands also gave way to how big brands themselves had a lot to learn from the entrepreneurial retailers.
Four Challenges to Innovation
1. Consumer technology choices are changing
While there is much talk around "wearables" here at SXSW, there are still more questions than answers as to how customers will interact with their wearable technology devices. Does every retailer need a Google Glass strategy? Probably not, but in the not too distant future retailers have to be prepared for customers wandering through storefronts while accessing competitive information without even taking out their phone. Wearables like Google Glass have some maturing to do, but that shouldn't stop retailers from considering how they might impact their customer experience.
2. Savvy Social Shopping
Another key topic here was around the term "social shopping" and what that means to both the customer and the retailer. The best examples of superior social shopping strategies come from the independent sellers who are maximizing the relationships with their communities. One example from #retailtech panelist Will Young, Director of Zappos Labs, was how Zappos is experimenting with specific hashtags to help shoppers in hyper-personalized ways. The hashtag #nextootd (next outfit of the day) on Instagram generates personalized recommendations from Zappos. This type of socially connected shopping experience is what builds relationships.
3. New Tech Means Immediate Gratification
The way customers shop could be changing dramatically in the near future. Same-day delivery of goods ordered means customers could purchase from a display outside your store, regardless of store hours, and receive the item via a local delivery person within hours. 3-D printing means customers could order a pattern for ... dishes? clothing? You name it! And print the very item they desire at home. Retailers should consider ways to understand what these new delivery mechanisms mean to customer expectations. And it's not just around delivery. Tying the experience of what products do for customers will also exceed expectations. Lululemon offers a yoga class locator on their shopping site, for instance.
4. Balance of Privacy and Convenience
Customers say they want retailers to know them better and personalize the experience that much more. But this idea raises the question of privacy. How much do you need to expect as a customer? How much are you willing to waive? And where is the line between knowing your customer and stalking them? These are big questions to consider when addressing innovation around the experience. The beacons that identify customers by mobile phone and offer coupons based on past purchases could be seen as a blessing of convenience or a curse of Big Brother. Knowing where your customers stand will be critical to improving the experience.
Innovation is happening every day, through revolutionary personal customer service as well as real time, relevant marketing. What happens tomorrow will be all about balancing the needs of customers and the limitations and opportunities of retailers.
Jeannie Walters is the Chief Customer Experience Investigator and the CEO/Founder of 360Connext, a customer experience consulting firm based in the Chicago area. Photo by Keoni Cabral.