“To know your customer is to know why you are in business”

2 days, over 100 speakers, more than a 1,000 delegates – Retail Week Live was again the highlight in the retail calendar and Zensar was there to witness it all.

Bigger and better than ever, this was a landmark event in retail, never before has the pace of change been so frenetic, never before has the future looked so uncertain. In the words of retail CEO’s the retail climate today is “challenging” and “threatening”. We heard about failing fast, daily release cycles, experimentation, personalisation, working with start-ups; in short this felt like a conference of its time. Very different to previous years, reflecting the huge uncertainty in the industry.

Last year much was discussed about the technology……technology for the sake of it and how it would revolutionise our entire shopping experience. Well, to a large extent that is true and is playing out now but this year it seemed that the focus was more on technology as an enabler. An enabler to driving retail business outcomes; and so the themes revolved more around customer experience, personalisation, being disruptive, being relevant; in short knowing your customer – intimately.

But today many if not most retailers are unable to develop this intimate relationship with their customers; some such as Shop Direct, the winner of the Zensar Retail Technology Initiative Award, are closer than others – 1.2m different homepage personalisations is impressive – but the majority are unable to. Why? In order to become intimate with their customers, a retailer needs to not only know an awful lot about that customer – shopping behaviour, preferences, social influence, where and how they shop, even what mood they are in – but critically, to be able to join up all these different multi-various touchpoints and engagements into one cohesive and coherent dialogue.

Some, especially if not exclusively, such as the newer pure play retailers are better positioned than most due to the fact that they do not have the same legacy complexities and constraints to grapple with. But in the main for most it requires investment in order to liberate the data (by which to be able to make sense of it) the retailer holds and then in turn to convert it into meaningful, relevant customer information across the organisation.

Once this is achieved, personalisation is enabled and ultimately a single view of the customer – the Holy Grail. Only then does the retailer begin to make up ground on the soaring expectations of their customers. Only then can they truly seek to drive loyalty, NPS and conversion rates. 100 years ago a retailer knew their customers intimately because they were on the street corner and their customer base was small and they developed an intimate relationship with that small group of people. The need to do so holds true today as it did then but the challenge now is to do this at scale. As Shop Direct are doing with “experimentation at scale” so others need to follow suit.

Retail is now, more than ever, about the brand. We have an emotional connection with brands; as customers we like to understand and be knowledgeable about brands, about their products. We want to know if they ethically source, how they treat their staff, what part they play in our communities. Nearly half of all store assistants today believe that their customers know more about the product than they do. But we expect retail brands to know about us; our wants, needs, preferences, lifestyles, and yes even what mood we are in.

A personal example of how to get this very wrong which I recently experienced: sadly my mother passed away last year, however this didn’t stop one well known grocer pushing Mother’s Day promotions to me via their app – which is now uninstalled from my phone and I am unlikely to shop at that particular grocer ever again.

Personalisation is all about knowing your customer, intimately, respectfully, subtly. Those who achieve this earn the right, those who don’t will forfeit that right and as in the case above, do so spectacularly.

As the two keynotes from Dixons Carphone CEO Seb James at the opening of the conference and Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe at the close both echoed: “adapt or die”.

Andrew Busby is Retail Business Head at Zensar Technologies

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