“Excuse me, how do I get to…” – Redefining the Customer Journey in Modern Retail
Customer journeys have always been very linear pathways the customer goes through between before a completing a purchase. Whether it involved making a phone call, going to a store or simply ordering on the web, journeys were very simple. Whereas before customers were always going in the same direction, now with the introduction of numerous new channels and how they interact with central software journeys no longer can all be translated in simple sequential actions. Therefore I suggest the way perceive customer journeys needs to be re-assessed.
Those of us in Retail Information Technology have witnessed a monumental, bordering on tectonic, shift of attitudes. Historically IT for retail operators was always a low priority, undesirable distraction. The main performance yardstick being longevity and ease of implementation or upkeep. Business leaders generally responded to proposed change projects with either a “let’s just get it out of the way” or “can it wait until next year” attitude. All of a sudden as consumer technology boomed, the web exploded and the birth of (dare I say it) omnichannel, individuals across all departments are rightly starting to get more interested. They can see the ever-growing direct correlation between the functionality of their technology and overall selling performance. The approach of IT is more synonymous with that of the business as a whole. One only has to spend time at the various major functions like NRF or RBTE, speak to major brands and respond to the occasional RFP to see clearly that that everyone is putting the customer at the heart of their IT strategy. This itself is poignant. IT departments now have to think like the business, with most of what they do in the context of how it will affect the precious customer. Resultantly, business thinking in IT translates into talk of the customer’s online and offline journey.
Customer journeys are merely interactions between the customer and retailer – essentially what the customer wants to do is always in the context of how the retailers’ infrastructure allows them to do it. Broken down, journeys are every tiny interaction a customer has with a supplier up to when they’re at home with their shiny new purchase. The effect new technology, therefore, has on a customer’s journey is plain for everyone to see. But this is not limited to the digital or computerised age.
Changes in technology have always impacted the way retailers and vendors operate. For most of human history, it’s been pretty simple. From the dawn of time Baldric and his ancestors simply went down to the stall, saw something they liked and bartered for a price, bought it then or collected it later. The latter two being the fundamental journeys – alas weren’t those the days! Back then even, customers with more grandeur, would most likely have had hefty orders for hunting feasts, seasonal banquets or general estate up-keep delivered to their gate in what was, when you think about it, probably the original tiered loyalty scheme. All a bit game-of-thrones I know, but you see my point.
Retailing as ever has evolved with each human proto-advancement. General post came next, letters and order forms bulged mailmen sacks, over time making out-of-store purchases available down the social classes. As the telephone became commercialised it presented another channel to get orders in. Customers would ring ahead and pick them up or get the mischievous local boy to drop them off for a shilling. Again my analogies have run away with me. The 20th century consolidated this approach. Latterly, catalogues were all the rage as high-quality, high-volume colour printing meant that our front doors were piled high with polished children and silver fox men accompanies by perfect women twenty years their junior. The opportunity to flick through and bark product numbers down the phone to diligent telesales assistants was open to all with a postcode.
Today as we know, like seemingly everything, it’s all very very very different. The year 2000 onwards expedited the purchasing of goods online to be delivered to home, in parallel to traditional in-store buying. This exponential growth of consumerised web buying and what was ‘multi-channel’ was a huge shock to all. Platforms like Amazon and eBay swept through whole markets and sectors devouring as they went. People leading increasingly busy lives, along with the convenience of online, meant far less time was designated for shopping and store sales retreated further and further. Nothing has changed much in attitudes, but stores have been fighting back as we know.
The market has long moved away from a linear approach to digital sales. Online concepts and technologies are sophisticated enough for the store and e-commerce to complement each other. The single view of orders and customer, real-time data transfer as well as whole new “integrated” channels have completely changed customer interactions with retailers and their infrastructure.
Like all the aforementioned shifts and introductions of technology it transformed the journeys themselves. The introduction of new devices such as tablets, smartphones and kiosks coupled with fulfilment options like click and collect mean that the start and end-points of a customer journey are more varied. What’s useful to us studying journeys now though is the customer leaves an online footprint we can track and scrutinise. What’s great for retailers is, using the data to improve service next time.
It is the fundamental attitude towards what journeys are that has to change however. In the physical world, one can turn around, change direction, change route, change vehicle and pause along the way – all in “real time”. To mimic this, the integration and functional parity of mobile apps, the web and the store means that orders, appointments, baskets, wish-lists, loyalty points and promotions facilitate a whole new set of directions and vehicles for the customer’s journey to take between origin and fulfilment. Cloud services and web entities mean the number of places a customer can take their journey goes to a resounding N. Meaning that the approach of mapping out of specific sequential journeys is merely a testing exercise at best.
The sophistication of consumer demands and expectations both drive and reflect this. Previously the technology available laid out the pathway for customer’s to walk through. Retailers have recognised the customers now wants to choose their own path. Capitalism at work indeed. I’ll dare an example – The customer wants to be able to peruse items on the web. See the same items that piqued their curiosity on their phone, and go to their tablet to add a colour to their basket. They want to be able to go to any of the three to make a change and they want it all to be laid out for them effortlessly in the store when they get or any combinations of the three. As I say there now n number of possibilities for where they can go and what they can do. Excuse me how do I get there? Any way you wish madam.