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In looking back at 2017 in retail customer experience, there were lots of big headlines, a big wave of emerging technologies and a long list of strategies in play as retailers strive to enhance and advance the customer experience.

As the new year arrives, it’s a great time to look ahead at what’s to come from those in the trenches. Retail customer experience gurus, leaders and experts shared their insight with Retail Customer Experience via email as 2017 ebbed to a close.

Pricing, data and AI will hit spotlight

Katie Smith, retail analysis and insights director at EDITED, expects greater pricing transparency among retailers and that 2018 will see brands experimenting with ways to use prices to attract customers.

“This includes giving customers a discount if they remove the ‘free returns’ option or buy multiple items, or are transparent about supply chain costs, to align with consumer values,” she said, adding she expects the “AI avalanche” will continue.

“The continued expansion of Amazon into groceries, apparel and other consumer goods mean AI will be essential for retailers’ survival. In 2018, new AI applications — including more chatbots, voice activated devices, real-time analytics and systems to detect payment fraud will flood the industry. Savvy retailers will recognize which apps to use for greater personalization, customer service and inventory management.”

Riversand co-founder and CEO Upen Varanasi expects data to be in big play as retailers kiss focus group efforts goodbye and embrace more concise data and data intelligence.

“Focus groups used to be heavily relied upon for insights into consumer preferences and attitudes. This outdated means of testing products and services with consumers is undergoing an evolution thanks to personal information management and social media insights,” he wrote, adding “focus groups will evolve to be more into finding insights to the “what if” areas of new product and industry sectors, where they may enhance data.”

Varanasi also expects AI to take a big spotlight.

“Listen, AI and automation may sound like a whole lot of hype, but the technology takes subjectivity out of the equation and makes inevitably better decisions. It’s here to stay. It does need to mature, however, and there’s tremendous wind behind the sails to help it get there in the next year. The problem isn’t so much whether to leverage and integrate AI — we’ll save that for another day — the problem that we’ll need to solve in 2018 and beyond is understanding how it got to a certain decision.”

Jennifer Johnson, head of retail industry marketing at Kronos, predicts AI will be a differentiator as retailers tap more human capital power “to innovate and collaborate” in the crowded omnichannel space.

“What drives innovation today? Technology and capital — yes to an extent. But it’s really the ideas and the creativity of people that propel innovation.  Workforce and human capital management is a much-needed catalyst for today’s digital transformation: to help improve the employee experience so a positive customer experience can be delivered,” she said.

Some examples would be transforming the role of frontline retail managers via AI which would dramatically boost the time managers spend on customers and coaching employees, she explained.

“What if your employees and managers could use ANY device of their choice, to collaboratively self-schedule and express where, when, and how much they want to work, and a schedule optimization engine generates an ideal schedule. And what if a machine learning backed forecasting tool could make schedule creation that much more accurate, taking into account customer demand and employee preferences,” said Johnson. “This is the future of work in retail — it’s leveraging AI, machine learning,and advanced technology, but at the end it’s also back to basics — take care of your people and see how that makes financial sense.”

Nuance Communications Executive Vice President and General Manager, Enterprise Division, Robert Weideman believes virtual assistants will be in play for customer service and will do a good job.

“Conversational AI breakthroughs have led to a new generation of VAs specific to your bank, your telco and your pizza ordering, all providing personalized, concierge-like service. In 2018, this generation of VAs will be made even more effective, through technology called HAVA (human assisted virtual assistant). HAVA adds a human-in-the-loop capability, first to help answer new questions the VA may not know, but more importantly, to provide a learning loop that updates the VA’s ‘brain’ in real time,” he said.

Voice will be heard louder in 2018

Almaz Nanjappa, senior vice president of innovation labs at Softvision, expects enabled voice technology to become a “powerful and standard way of interfacing with consumers,” and play “an essential role” in the customer buying experience.

“Assistants like Alexa and Siri will become more standard as TV and home appliance vendors will make sizeable investments in their products to become more voice interactive to enhance the consumer shopping experience, just as Amazon has done in our homes with Alexa and Apple has provided to mobile with Siri,” said Nanjappa.

Talkdesk CEO Tiago Paiva expects voice to remain a vibrant customer experience technology even with increased use of chatbot and other automation tools, and cited a Deloitte 2017 global contact center survey that states voice still accounted for 64 percent of customer interactions this year, four times more than any other channel.

“Looking two years into the future, the same survey projects voice to be about half of all communications, three times more than any other individual channel. These numbers are for total communications, it doesn’t even take into account that voice is used for the crucial, high-emotion moments that make or break customer loyalty,” he said, adding he believes AI-based tools will not only be helping customers but support agents as well.

“For complex support interactions that involve a high degree of emotion, an AI-enhanced agent can solve a customer problem faster than that customer could self-serve. Using new tools to provide context to the agents, AI can assist both sides of a support call, delivering a quicker, more satisfying experience for everyone,” said Paiva.

Verifone President of North America Joe Mach expects point-of-sale technology advancements will lead to the demise of the check-out line and drive greater engagement between sales associates and customers.

“As retailers develop online, mobile and physical retail platforms, they can leverage all their channels into savings and increased customer satisfaction such as ordering out-of-stock merchandise for a customer from another location or online store,” said Mach.

In-store experiences, shipping trends in play

Mach also predicts consumers will visit physical stores as long as there are new and interesting reasons to go.

“As new shopping platforms continue to evolve, retailers will use more meaningful personalization tactics to attract customers. By integrating new technologies like beacons, omnichannel solutions and consumer smartphone integration with devices, larger retailers can develop bespoke experiences similar to the smaller boutique experience.  We expect to see more use of software applications that create loyalty and incentives for customers to visit their favorite stores more often.”

Ian Jarvis, head of retail at The Smart Cube, expects showrooms to play a bigger role this year online and in stores as they provide consumers a way to check out products, and cited Nordstrom’s move to offer a showroom only experience this past year where no items were available.

“Retailers in some sectors can replace under performing stores and support ecommerce efforts with showrooms. A showroom, in its purest form, is a store that showcases products, but sells nothing — in the sense of providing goods to consumers,” he said, adding that a showroom offers items for inspection, gives advice on products and takes orders.

“The products are then shipped to the customer’s home from some other location,” he explained. The showroom also can serve as a customer engagement hub environment, he noted, by providing personal stylists, tailor services and even manicure appointments as well as refreshments.

“Today, consumers are already using retail stores in this way; they browse in person and purchase online. But because retailers still aim to sell from their store inventory, they have to maintain the full range of existing store support infrastructure, making the current arrangement not economically beneficial. A dedicated showroom has a crucially different intent.”

Jarvis also expects same-day shipping to become more prominent as free shipping is no longer an option.

“It’s a requirement in today’s world. Consumers might not want to actually make the trip to physical locations, but they still want the instant gratification,” he said, citing Amazon’s same day fresh food delivery and same day delivery efforts by Target, Best Buy and eBay. “It’s obvious that shoppers’ demand for faster delivery is here to stay.”

And let’s not forget mobile

Given all the news this year regarding mobile — from mobile pay to enhanced mobile shopping — it’s no surprise many industry watchers expect even greater advancements with regard to the retail customer experience.

Vicki Cantrell, retail transformation officer at Aptos, stated it simply: mobile is never ending and never finished.

“Mobile has been an initiative for retailers for years and has come a long way. Mobile is an extension of the store, and retailers must be able to facilitate rapid delivery of everything available in-store on mobile devices, and then some. In 2018, retailers must continue to improve their mobile platform capabilities so that it works seamlessly or risk losing sales. This goes for mobile applications and in the mobile web browser.”

Verifone’s Mach has a very similar viewpoint regarding mobile tech in 2018. He said retailers need to make it a priority as an alternative payment option given consumer expectations.

“The introduction of new payment methods is constant,” he said. “It’s important to stay nimble and adapt to new technologies, such as mobile payment applications, as they emerge. Apple Pay is reporting more than 1 million new users each week. Popular cloud-based wallets such as WeChat Pay and Alipay are breaking down borders and disrupting the payments ecosystem. User adoption will continue to increase, and payment providers and businesses need to prepare to accept a growing number of alternative payments (including wearable smart devices).

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Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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