After an awesome trip to eTail West, we sat down with Lori Hawthorne, Divisional Director and Senior Retail Analyst of Worldwide Business Research, to glean insight into unified commerce and the latest business technologies adopted by the sector in 2018.
RB.AI: You face a daunting task each every year, which is to find companies on the cutting edge of retail to attend the E-tail conferences. Could you talk about some of the biggest trends that you identified in 2018?
LH: For 2018, omnichannel remains a really big challenge across a number of retailers. The biggest example of online success would be Amazon of course – a recent statistic stated that they have 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers. That was really eye-opening to the industry to think about the type of engagement they have and how successful they’ve been with that program. So thinking about omnichannel in the context of using it for competitive advantage, but also thinking about delivery, fulfillment and even ways to compete with programs such as Prime.
On the online retail side, we were really thinking about the future of retail at the eTail conferences; not just the types of technologies that are going to be pervasive over the next two years, but also thinking long-term over the next ten years. These technologies include Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, AI, and developing successful use cases around them. And also personalization is a really big trend and something we cover every year because it’s foundational to achieving really great customer experiences from retailers. We’re interested in exploring how retailers can put in place strategies of personalization and ensure that they’re using those to drive customer engagement and loyalty. Overall, we’re trying to paint a holistic picture of what’s happening within the customer journey, so everything from practices around customer acquisition, to what’s helping convert customers, to ensuring that that process is seamless – and all the way to customer retention, and post-purchase best practices.
I think retailers are on the cusp of understanding what the potential of AI actually is, but they really need to because of all the potential of the use of this technology.
RB.AI: So for these new technologies you mentioned, including AI, VR, and AR, are there successful use cases you’ve seen in the retail space?
LH: Use cases for AI are being driven by companies that are more on the service side of the business. AI is being used in retail related to chat, and I think that goes nicely with some of the solutions that RapportBoost.AI is offering. I think chat is one of the easiest entry points in terms of the use of the AI. I’m not necessarily seeing a ton of retailers being able to use it effectively to automate the number of processes that they could. I think retailers are on the cusp of understanding what the potential of AI actually is. AI is a nut that they haven’t cracked yet but they really need to because of all the potential of the use of this technology.
RB.AI: Right, and I know online to offline retail experiences are also trending right now. Chat can play a role in that in giving the online purchase experience the human element that can sometimes be missing when compared to brick and mortar. What are you seeing in terms of O2O retail trends?
There’s a lot of work that retailers still need to do in order to make sure that they’re trying those experiences and tying those channels together, and making sure that the offline channel is highly digitized because that’s what today’s consumer is expecting.
LH: That’s definitely the standard of driving engagement in-store – melding together online with in-store experiences. We had the SVP of Digital of the Gap speak a lot about digital transformation in the context of omnichannel. We typically more have tracks and streams that are dedicated to merging online and offline because the channels feed into each other seamlessly. We also had the SVP of marketing from Chico’s talking about their omnichannel journey. We had executives from Nordstrom talking about how they’re trying to meld online and offline from a technology standpoint.
I just think it’s so pervasive for any brick and mortar retailer – you really can’t think about offline in a silo. There’s a lot of work that retailers still need to do in order to make sure that they’re trying those experiences and tying those channels together, and making sure that the offline channel is highly digitized because that’s what today’s consumer is expecting.
RB.AI: Can you talk about the concept of omnichannel in depth?
LH: Sure, I think the concept is actually evolving and that the term itself may disappear in the next few years. Retailers are really trying to move towards the concept of unified commerce, which is presenting an almost invisible type of experience to customers to the point that all of a retailer’s systems – including their back-end systems and customer-facing systems – are working together seamlessly. So, the channel itself doesn’t matter – it’s completely agnostic – but you’re providing an experience that’s going to allow them to shop really easily in the most efficient way very seamlessly across any channel and within any channel. Unified commerce describes the ways that channels are working together in a very seamless way and how they are feeding into one another seamlessly as well. Even the way the success of a “channel” is measured differently in this case. Because the channels are thought of holistically, crediting the sale to one channel really doesn’t matter. It’s about being convenient for the customer and thinking about the way that they interact with your brand.
RB.AI: So as a customer, whether I’m on my mobile device, my computer, or am physically walking into a store, I’m going to feel the communication of that brand.
Lori Hawthorne is a Divisional Director at Worldwide Business Research (WBR), overseeing the successful production of the company’s portfolio of B2B retail and e-commerce conferences including eTail, Future Stores, and B2B Online. She also tracks and researches the key trends shaping the retail landscape as the company’s Senior Retail Analyst, speaking regularly with senior retail executives from both Fortune 1000 companies and innovative startups alike to uncover the current and future pain points impacting retailers. A native New Yorker, Lori holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Virginia.