Store Associate Digitisation

By Manhattan Staff,
Store Associate Digitisation

Overnight, Pokémon GO made the concept of augmented reality (AR) mainstream. Within a couple weeks of its launch, 21 million people per day were wandering around parking lots and parks, captivated by a game where you seek out and capture digital creatures.

AR is a category of technologies that "enhances" reality by overlaying digital information onto an image of the physical world. Pokémon GO has managed to popularise AR in a way no other application—let alone video game—ever has. While many retailers are cashing in on the short-term craze by promoting their stores inside the game (one chain saw a 26% increase in sales by promoting their location within the game), taking a closer look at why the game has succeeded has some compelling longer-term takeaways for omni-channel store operators in particular.

Physical extends digital
Mark Wilson at Fast Company came up with a theory for why GO has connected with consumers while other AR attempts have fizzled:

GO [the smartphone game] represents a very natural extension of [traditional] Pokémon’s core game play […] Pokémon already had the map. GO is just projecting that fantasy world onto the real one.

Wilson's point is compelling because it underscores that AR as a technology isn't what makes the game resonate. It's digital experiences that already mimic the physical world that are the ones that click for users when the two are brought together. For retailers looking to better integrate digital commerce into their store experiences, this has significant implications—especially in the tools used by store associates (who, by the way, are statistically likely to be Pokémon GO players themselves).

Today's store employees typically use multiple systems that aren't seamlessly integrated. The legacy point of sale doesn't give the associate the same access to a customer's purchase history and preferences that the customer's own smartphone does. The store fulfilment system resides on a standalone device that pulls associates away from interacting with in-store customers. Kiosks duplicate what the ecommerce site and mobile app offer, without providing a clear role for the associate to assist in the sale. In all of these examples, the digital and physical worlds coexist, but as with previous attempts at AR, they don't build on one another. The result? A disjointed experience for the store associate, in turn exposed as a poor experience for the customer.

Bringing digital natively to the store
Taking the lesson from the game, digital experiences in the store have to capture and extend the aspects of online shopping that are innately physical to begin with. This breaks down into three categories of online capabilities.

  1. Understanding the customer. Retailers have honed personalised experiences online to a point where the ecommerce site in many ways feels more human than interacting with employees in a store. By taking the customer's shopping history and offering recommendations, the webstore now mimics what high-end stores have long offered with "little black books" and clienteling.

    Using a hypothetical example, let's apply this digital capability natively to the store: A repeat customer from Manchester named Anne purchased a pair of shoes on your e-commerce site last month. While on a business trip, she stops in to your Southampton store. Equipped with a mobile device that offers complete insight into her purchase history and brand interaction, your store associate in Southampton is able to identify the customer, the shoes she bought online, and the fact that she frequently buys full price and rarely returns merchandise. The associate can offer to find a handbag that matches her shoes, and even set up an appointment for Anne to stop in at the Manchester store when she gets home to try on some coordinated outfits.

    Armed with access to 360-degrees of customer data, particularly in a mobile context, store associates can take on virtually any customer relationship-related opportunity with confidence.

  2. Selling the network. Omnichannel retailers have long offered some degree of store inventory visibility on their ecommerce sites. Many leading retailers are offering search filters based on store availability, as well as same day click-and-collect capabilities to increase conversions and store inventory utilisation. In many ways, the webstore is fast becoming a first-class store salesperson.

    Applying this natively to the store in our example: Anne has found a dress she likes at the Southampton store—but she'd like to know if other colours are available. With a complete view of network inventory on her mobile or fixed-lane point of sale, your associate in Southampton is able to serve as an enterprise salesperson. If other colours aren't stocked in the Southampton store, she can quickly identify where it can be found and facilitate the most convenient way to get it into Anne’s hands – home delivery, pick up in another store or, for some retailers, courier-delivered to a hotel.

    With the ability to sell the entire network of inventory—not just what’s on hand locally—associates can negate the difference between product sitting on the store shelf in front of them and product that resides at another store across town or a distribution centre hundreds of miles away.

  3. Scaling up operations. Pure play ecommerce and omni-channel retailers have seen the scale of online selling and fulfilment grow nearly three times the rate of total retail sales growth over the past year. This hypergrowth in digital exerts pressure on a retailer's physical operations. The strain on infrastructure requires technologies, facilities and teams that can expand and flex quickly to meet demand.

    Let's apply this 'macro-operational' flexibility to the 'microcosm' of the store: Moments before Anne walked into the Southampton store, your associate was in the process of restocking shelves and performing cycle counts using the mobile device. The associate pauses this work to help Anne find a dress. While Anne's in the fitting room, the device alerts the associate that a rush online order has come in to be fulfilled for same-day delivery. Anne is able to use the device to pick and pack the order for courier pickup before Anne returns from the fitting room to ask about another dress color. The associate checks Anne out for the online dress, the in-store handbag, and schedules the Manchester store appointment—all using the same device, which then directs the associate to resume the cycle count. 

    The ability to interweave selling, inventory and fulfilment tasks—combined with the flexibility to stop and resume any activity to serve the in-store customer—creates a store environment that naturally extends the infrastructural flexibility available in the digital channel.

Beneath these three capabilities, and in the hypothetical examples for each, there are common technologies required to support the store associate's digital needs. Most visible are the mobile solutions that afford associates the ability to interact with customers, products and tasks in a fluid and natively digital way. Below that lies a common set of store applications, supported by an order management system, that allow customer, inventory and execution data to be readily accessed by the associate—regardless of the task at hand.

Pokémon GO has been lauded by critics and gamers alike for its ability to get players up, outside, and exploring places they wouldn’t normally go in pursuit of winning. That’s an apt metaphor for the technology solutions retailers need to provide their store associates in this competitive landscape. But the best part?  No need to wait for augmented reality to make its way to brick and mortar—these digital store capabilities are available to retailers today.

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