Encouraging customer loyalty is no longer solely about retailers offering consumers a store card - it is about guided selling and providing a multichannel proposition, according to retail technology expert Helen Slaven.
The Vice President of Retail at tech solutions provider Torex explains to Retail Gazette that technology and “service shopping” are key components in this new relationship between retailer and shopper.
“One of the big areas for change in retail at the moment revolves around guided selling,” she said.
“Retailers realise that getting consumers to spend is getting increasingly difficult - it is no longer just about value for money.
“Consumers are demanding service support when they go into a store, via mobile, iPads and kiosks to in-store experts who understand the products.”
Many of the things Slaven identifies as essential to offering optimum customer service are already incorporated at electricals retailers such as Apple, Best Buy and to some extent Dixons Group through its new Black concept store.
General Manager of O2 Retail Richard Baylis also explained to Retail Gazette last week that the mobile phone specialist has invested lots of money and time into educating its staff in new technologies over the coming year.
“We are seeing a real change in the way retailers are viewing technology,” Slaven adds.
“Before, it was all about systems, but now retailers are seeing that technology is a key deliverable to enable business strategy and its usage is firmly on the retail board agenda.”
Slaven has a proven track record in the retail technology sector, having worked in various high profile industry roles throughout her career.
In the early stages of her working life at global tech giant IBM she quickly became a client manager for retail, before moving on to take a Sales Director position at software company NSB Group and then a senior role at BT.
She was latterly CEO of BT Expedite, ahead of taking on the challenge of turning around Torex in the wake of a private equity acquisition which followed the collapse of the company in its previous form.
Implications of the previous regime are still fresh in the memory, especially with two ex-directors involved in the company’s downfall at the end of the last decade being sentenced for fraud last month, but Slaven chooses to focus on the future.
“Our revenues are lower than the last two years, but this has been a deliberate move,” she states.
“After realigning the company with three main divisions - retail non-food, hospitality and petrol & convenience - we are trading profitably and are starting to grow again under the ownership of Cerberus and GA.”
The Torex retail boss also suggests that the business is now targeting further growth and innovation, much like the retail industry itself which must keep adapting to consumers’ changing requirements if it is to remain relevant.
Even in a tough trading environment, where swingeing government cuts, rising petrol prices and tax hikes are having a derogatory effect on consumer confidence, it appears that companies view technology as a worthwhile investment.
Slaven comments: “I generally think that retailers recognise that things are changing and there has to be cautious investment.
“Maybe the answer lies in a more balanced portfolio of stores - and not just in the UK for example.”
Of the sectors Torex operates in, telecoms is apparently seeing an upturn in technology investment whereas fashion and specialist retailers are tending to spend less. Of those investing less, however, many are looking to use new systems to expand overseas.
“In general we are seeing investment still, but it’s more cautious, not so big bang and it’s very forensic in terms of retailers needing to have demonstrable payback,” Slaven adds.
“As long as these measures are met, retailers are looking to change their technology base to move forward.”
In times of economic uncertainty, collaboration seems to be the key to achievement in many areas of the retail industry.
Retail property bosses recently called for greater cooperation between tenants and landlords to ensure the sector progresses in hard times, while Peter Fuller, retail director at distribution and logistics firm Norbert Dentressangle, told Retail Gazette last year that supply chain solutions providers must now guarantee success to the retailers they work with.
As Slaven notes, the same trends are being seen within the retail technology world too.
“Working with retailers is much more of a partnership because we have to prove the investment cycle works.
“Retailers do not take big risks without guaranteed payback.”