Voice Tools Could Help Brick-and-Mortar Retail Remain Relevant

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The term omnichannel had its roots in retail and was adapted by Frost & Sullivan in 2013 to fit customer care. Now ubiquitous in the contact center industry, the term is often misused, but the idea behind it remains potent. The first half of the original definition—“Omnichannel is ensuring a consistent and seamless high-quality customer experience regardless of how and where a customer chooses to interact with an organization, and no matter the purpose”—still holds true and is being realized across industries infused with technology, from self-service applications driven by speech technologies to innovations that have enabled new channels to emerge, such as mobile, chat, and social media. 

But sadly, the brick-and-mortar retail sector where the omnichannel concept originated has recently seen a lot of bad news: store closing and bankruptcies, malls becoming ghost towns, the demise of many iconic brands. The sector’s travails have left it fighting to remain relevant amid a sea change of tech-savvy consumers that research, compare, and buy online. 

But perhaps the demise of brick-and-mortar retail has been greatly exaggerated. We are now seeing retail fight back with an array of technologies geared to improving the customer experience (CX). For instance, grocery stores are ripe for innovation, which was reflected in the 2018 National Grocery Shoppers Survey, conducted by Nielsen on behalf of the National Grocery Association. Whereas 80% of shoppers preferred their independent grocery store over an online alternative, 11% did their shopping online for convenience. Areas cited for CX improvement included consistent pricing between online and in-store and easy-to-use smartphone apps. 

In the chain grocery world, the United Kingdom’s Lidl is going the voice app route to attract and keep customers. This year it launched Margot, an interactive and engaging Facebook Messenger app, designed by Aspect, that helps in-store customers with their wine purchases, answering questions on wine and food pairings, making suggestions, and educating and entertaining along the way. Margot is a true conversational bot that answers questions using natural language. She can respond to customers using emojis as well. The initial rollout was so positive that Lidl is now deploying Margot across its European stores. 

Improving CX by enhancing the worker experience is also a central front in this effort. Theatro Labs has introduced technology with the potential to dramatically change the employee experience by helping workers communicate with each other more effectively during the workday. 

In large retail environments, employee communication can be spotty and disruptive; worst case, when associates can’t assist customers themselves, they have to walk to a different part of the store to find help. Traditional in-store communication technology, such as overhead paging, walkie-talkies, or two-way radios, are distracting, disruptive, and not private, as well as disconnected from other enterprise systems, unable to gather communication and transactional information. As for mobile devices, despite their ubiquity, arming associates with a mobile app isn’t the preferred solution either, as management would rather avoid the distractions that mobile devices provide. 

Theatro Labs is aiming to change all this with its voice-controlled mobile IoT solution. The Theatro Conversational Platform provides an intelligent personal assistant—accessed through a wearable device and headset—that allows employees to use voice commands to get information or communicate with each other. Employees can simply ask the system to call a coworker to establish a one-on-one chat or messaging session; call a department for a group chat; notify security of an issue; get inventory, price, or associate or product location information; or query task management systems for their next work assignment. Not only does the solution drive worker productivity, but it also improves the employee experience and CX as well. 

Voice technologies such as these are just the tip of the iceberg. For the retail industry to fight back against online shopping and breathe new life into its brick-and-mortar establishments, the stores themselves need to embrace technology. 

Nancy Jamison is a principal analyst in customer contact at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com, or follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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