These are interesting times in the retail industry, forecast to experience more change over the course of the next five years than it has during the past century. The customer of the digital era is confident, determined, well-informed and spoilt for choice. And capricious to boot. Not surprising then, retailers are pulling out all the stops to create an ‘omni-channel retail’ environment, one where connectivity seamlessly unifies the in-store, online and mobile shopping experience, for a happily-ever-after ending to their relationship with the customer.
To break the clutter and leave a mark in this insanely competitive space, where yesterday’s minion start-ups count among today’s big fish, retail outlets are tripping over each other to deliver a unique personalized retail experience that puts the customer in the driver’s seat. Some of the trends driving retail strategies are social media retailing, i.e., engaging with their shoppers through social media, offering personalized discounts, replacing loyalty cards with apps, offering mobile payment options, and the crucial deal-breaker: offering free in-store Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi has proved to be a real game-changer in terms of brand retention and customer engagement. Around 36% of retailers in the U.S. plan to upgrade their in-store Wi-Fi. Major retailers like Nordstrom (2010), Macy’s, and Sam’s Club were some of the early adopters, providing free Wi-Fi access to their customers. Target, J.C. Penney, and Saks Fifth Avenue followed suit.
Offering in-store shoppers personalized discounts that they can bag by surfing the Wi-Fi will not just ensure a bunch of happy customers but also yield big data and metrics for the retail outlet to do some homework on shopping patterns and trends. The data can be analyzed to identify loyal customers and window-shoppers, measure footfall and commitment rates, and to inform and drive marketing and advertising campaigns.
Using mobile apps, the retailers can push marketing offers and product information on the customers’ smartphones. The store’s online portal/application can also be used to deliver relevant content to the customers, based on the terms set by the customers while logging in.
Another strategy to reel in ‘captive audience’ includes ‘geofencing’, where subscribers receive targeted text messages within a pre-defined area. This tactic provides retailers the ability to message customers with customized and relevant information and offers, when they are in the sweet spot – near or already inside the store and in a mood to shop.
In-store signage can be strategically placed to match consumer traffic patterns. Around the store, interactive kiosks and displays can beam information on special offers, the exact location of products and stock status, giving shoppers the ability to be in control, with minimal dependence on salespersons.
In-store Wi-Fi can also be used to increase employee productivity, where the staff can work optimally wherever they need, between floors and departments and not be constrained to a computer terminal. Sales associates can be equipped with tablets providing real-time information on the inventory, nimbly assisting the shoppers with placing and checking out orders, thus avoiding the ubiquitous long checkout lines. These tablets can also double as roaming POS, which can be especially useful during peak hours and holiday sales.
Omni-channel retail experience comes with its own set of challenges though, the greatest being ensuring ‘mission-critical wireless connectivity 24×7’. With the customer’s zero-tolerance to IT service downtime, many businesses are moving their business-critical applications and processes to the cloud.
As the number of ‘connected’ people worldwide reaches 3.2 billion at the end of 2015, wireless technology needs to be embedded within business processes for a company to be truly successful and relevant, especially in the retail space. With mobile device saturation becoming a reality (258 million mobile phone users in the U.S. as of 2015) and sales growth in smartphones peaking (64% of American adults use a smartphone), retailers are now dabbling with augmented reality (AR) technology, bringing in-store products closer to customers’ daily lives through wearables. Close on the heels of AR, the IoT wave is set to disrupt the retail industry, from streamlining supply chain management, enabling smart inventories with RFID (radio-frequency identification), and improving targeted proximity marketing using beacons, to creating the ultimate personalized shopping experience with virtual changing rooms, mood detectors, and smart checkout counters.
From the traditional brick-and-mortar, in-store experience to immersive augmented reality, innovations continue to mark retail’s evolution, as it tries to keep pace with the ever-shifting goalpost of nailing consumer behavior. Innovate or be left behind.
 Baynote (http://www.baynote.com/infographic/brave-new-world/)
 Source: IHL Study: Impact of Store Networks and WiFi on Customer Experience, 2015 (preliminary results)
 State of Connectivity 2015 A Report on Global Internet Access – Facebook
 Statista (www.statista.com/statistics/222306/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-the-us/)
 U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015, Pew Research Center (www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/)