The disruption and shifting demands of the past 24 months have elevated retail’s focus on the “consumer experience,” as e-commerce transformed the way retailers do business and forced large-scale technology adoption and innovation. But while it may seem like the shift to experience-focused retail delivery happened overnight, these changes were already underway, even before the pandemic acted as a much-needed catalyst.

Growth of online sales and digital transformation is expected to continue, but with consumers coming back to stores, are retailers ready to meet their higher expectations for a seamless and friction-free experience? Can stores overcome widespread inconsistencies and inefficiencies across a complicated checkout process?

With increasing friction, frustration and lack of faith evident across the supply chain, retailers and consumers are both feeling the pain of closing the sale.

Barriers of Experience

Each customer channel requires separate interfaces and unique steps to complete the checkout process, creating significant complexity on the back end that must disappear on the front, shopper-facing end.

Countless online shoppers have abandoned carts started on a laptop, for example, and when they transitioned to a mobile device found their selections didn’t transfer with them. Similarly, the option to buy online for curbside pickup, which gained popularity during the pandemic, was a convenient and welcome process, unless the shopper arrived to find their order was incorrect or the curbside wait was too long to justify.

The checkout experience, whether in-person or online, still relies on underlying network connections. Add the potential for complexity due to processing delays and the human interaction required to solve transaction problems and you have a seemingly endless list of friction points that can — and must — be avoided.

Considerations for Delivering a Friction-Free Experience

The best way to engage with consumers is to meet them where they are, whether that’s in front of the checkout counter, online, or even in the metaverse.

To eliminate friction in the customer experience, retailers should leverage technology to enable an easy, friction-free shopping experience between digital and physical channels, and across all devices and touchpoints. This will build a loyal customer base.

With the technology strategy in place, retailers can:

  • Engage with consumers to ensure they’re satisfied throughout the entire buying process.
  • Create convenient ways for consumers to connect with retailers to better understand what they’re looking for and what they would like to see in the product mix.
  • Deliver a consistent shopping and brand experience at every touchpoint, from website to mobile app to store and across every other interaction.
  • Infuse automation, where applicable, to maximize product optimization efforts and eliminate manual reporting tasks. Leveraging automation will streamline processes and help put the focus back on the consumer, where it belongs.
  • Realign employees to focus on strategic, consumer-centric tasks rather than chasing down problems and course correcting.
  • Listen to consumers and ensure a continuous feedback loop to improve omnichannel strategy and build better product assortments and deeper customer relationships.
  • Change organizational thinking from “how can we make this work” to “how can we design this to work in our ecosystem in an integrated fashion?”

At the start of the pandemic, retailers quickly pivoted processes to ensure just-in-time, contactless delivery. The urgency of the circumstances meant some of these changes weren’t well integrated with the enterprise’s broader ecosystems, and internal handoffs to retail employees often weren’t smooth.

It’s imperative to revisit these broken processes and ensure the focus is back on a seamless, integrated experience for consumers as they head back to stores. Perhaps a customized offer directed at curbside pickup customers might present an opportunity to entice the shopper into the store for additional purchases. None of this can be achieved if the hand-offs aren’t friction-free and combined with a memorable experience.

Consumers have more choices today than ever. Retailers have little or no control over factors such as inflation, economic and geopolitical conditions, and the broader supply chain, but positive customer experiences are very much within their control. A seamless and consistent checkout experience across all physical and digital channels and delivering on expectations are critical.

Sunder Pillai leads the Retail, CPG and Enterprise Practice for global technology research and advisory firm ISG

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