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Minding the inventory to improve customer service

Retail executives from around the globe made the annual pilgrimage to New York City for RetailÂ’s Big Show in mid-January, organised by the National Retail Federation, to investigate the latest retail technology and IT trends. By Glynn Davis in New York.


Minding the inventory to improve customer service

Retail executives from around the globe made the annual pilgrimage to New York City for RetailÂ’s Big Show in mid-January, organised by the National Retail Federation, to investigate the latest retail technology and IT trends. By Glynn Davis in New York.

Everything about the show is big, with 34,000 visitors viewing the 580 exhibiting technology companies spread around the 228,000 square feet that make up the Expo Hall. Across such a large space there are many recurring themes but one of the key areas of focus this year was around delivering a better service to customers.

This encompasses the improved utilisation of data analytics to deliver a more personalised service both in-store and online, as well as improved inventory management that enables goods to be more efficiently delivered to customers across a retailer’s various channels.

Both these elements were evident in the conceptual Alexander Black store showcased by BT that bristled with glitzy technology – from RFID and Beacons to interactive digital screens. But the most important element is that it is fully connected at the back-end and all the digital devices sit on top of a central content management system that links directly into the stores’ Point-of-Sale.

Integral to the store is RFID technology, which enables various interactions in-store such as images of selected goods being displayed life-size onto large interactive digital screens, allowing employees to pull up additional product information onto their tablets, and in the changing rooms it is possible for customers to also view additional product details on digital screens as well as request different sizes. These requests flash up on the sales assistants’ tablet and can then use the store’s RFID capability to locate the required items.

RFID was one of the most interesting aspects of NRF this year as it has made a return to the scene on the back of its ability to allow retailers to much more easily manage their inventories – and to help give them a single view of their stock across channels.

Levis is also testing RFID in three stores in San Francisco using Intel’s Retail Sensor Platform, which involves locating scanner units in the shops that each continuously monitor the movements of RFID-tagged items across an area measuring up to 250 square feet. These give much greater visibility of stock and know the position of all the items within a store to a tolerance of three-feet. The system can also provide interesting insights such as indicating to store employees that an item has not been on the correct shelf for 30-minutes and that there is not a similar item on the shelf so this should be addressed.

Improving availability this way is proving attractive and so more retailers are now adopting RFID including Tesco that in May did a trial across its F&F clothing range within three stores before rolling it out to 200 units, with plans now in place for it to hit 500 outlets soon.

Matt Newby, head of technology - stores stock, at Tesco, says: “We tracked it for a number of years before investing in it. We now serve our customers better as the time spent counting products has been reduced by 93%. We ensure all our colleagues are on the shop floor during the peak windows and not going to the stock rooms to look for goods.”

The need to better use the resources of shop floor employees in order to improve the service to customers is an issue that a number of solutions at NRF addressed through the use of smart technologies. These included two start-ups that both use Intel’s RealSense chip technology to overcome the perennial issue of sizing.

Size Stream has delivered a solution to Brooks Brothers that takes an infra red and a regular photo of the customer and from this creates hundreds of data points that can map out a 3D model of the person to determine the perfect fitting shirt. Meanwhile Volumental has been working with US department store Nordstrom to provide it with a 3D digital foot measuring solution, which sizes up customers’ feet and can then recommend specific shoe styles.

While these are undoubtedly useful, one of the most innovative solutions showcased at NRF this year is from GoInStore that is an extension of LiveChat – whereby it includes video alongside audio.

Aman Khurana, co-founder of GoInStore, says: “It bridges the gap between in-store and online by connecting sales experts in the stores with the online customer”.

Liberty of London, Heal’s and jewellery retailer Georg Jensen are using the solution to give online customers more information about products via a one-on-one interaction.

It uses an assignment engine to select the most relevant sales assistant, based on their expertise, and then when they are kitted out with Epson Moverio smart glasses they are able to give the customer a rich visual and audio experience direct from the store.

The sales assistants also have customer information from the retailer’s CRM system displayed on the lenses, which gives an added layer of personalisation. Khurana says the next feature for GoInStore is for the sales assistant to scan the item and for it to then be added to the customer’s basket or a link to the relevant product page emailed to the customer.

GoInStore can also be plugged into the customer service platform Zendesk, which is another solution that works across channels - to resolve customer issues in this case - with the ultimate aim of again improving customer service levels.

At NRF the company was flagging its latest version that includes a ‘Satisfaction Prediction’, which uses machine learning to take customer signals – such as the type of language they are using – and generate continuous scores in real-time that can then determine how the interaction with the customer should continue.

This has often led to a switch to human intervention in the past but with Satisfaction Prediction the intention is that Zendesk will become more adept at dealing with issues on an automated basis, which is typically quicker and more efficient.

Yasmeen Hyder, solutions consultant at Zendesk - which works with Asos, Rapha and many other retailers - says: “Forrester has reported that customers prefer self-service to using the telephone to resolve issues because it solves their problems more quickly and their satisfaction levels are higher.”

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