Seven surprising ways technology is changing your shopping experience

From 'dark social' to polymer bank notes, technology change is altering how we browse, and buy.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

IT-fuelled change has become a constant in the retail sector. CIOs must help their organisations to take advantage of innovation in an increasingly busy marketplace, where high street stores compete with online-only specialists.

From payments mechanisms to customer services, retailers must find new and interesting ways to keep shoppers happy. Industry experts at the recent RBTE 2016 conference in London revealed seven surprising ways IT-led transformation continues to impact the sector.

1. Innovation across all touch points produces great results...

Mark Lewis, head of omni-channel customer ordering at department store group John Lewis, says retailers must use technology to improve the customer experience across all touch points. The firm's research suggests omni-channel customers are the most valuable shoppers -- they spend about three times as much money as individuals who only use one channel.

"The key challenge is fulfilling orders -- so many products are ordered for delivery, including through click-and-collect," says Lewis. He says omni-channel retail must involve a seamless interaction with customers across all channels. The business should run as a single entity and IT innovation plays a key role.

Lewis points to JLAB, the retailer's innovation programme that helps startups develop great ideas for the retail environment. "I have to be able to justify my investment in technology," he says. "As we invest in our processes, we're seeing a positive return in both service and sales."

2. ...but the store is still the core.

"The days of mono-channel retail are over," says Scott Abrahams, head of acceptance and digital payments at MasterCard UK and Ireland.

Abrahams says eight out of ten customers now use a combination of channels, both online and offline, when making a purchase. He recognises retailers can gain a competitive edge by using connected technology to improve online experiences, but issues a word of warning.

Ecommerce still hovers at just 7.5 per cent of retail spend globally. "Firms shouldn't get carried about the potential of technology," he says. "Most customers rely on a mix of online and in-store shopping."

3. Good customer service requires an awareness of dark social.

James Leech, service lead in customer services at Argos, has helped the retailer create a new contact strategy that orchestrates the firm's various service channels and creates a customer-centric view. Leech says online services, like Twitter and live chat, can help customers get answers to questions quickly.

Argos continues to have ambitious plans for live chat and social media, including attempts to create increasingly agile customer service responses. Leech and his colleagues are investigating 'dark social', the direct messaging side of social media that is not publicly visible, such as via Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.

"It's an exciting time," says Leech. "We're on our way but we've still got lots of decisions to make. The use of digital technology continues to rise. Customers would prefer to only use the phone for complex interactions."

4. There are still new and different ways to sell books online.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, booksellers must find new ways to engage with their audience. Kieron Smith, digital director at Blackwell's, says his firm is meeting the challenge head on.

"It's difficult to browse online and you don't tend to get the surreptitious finds you discover when you browse in a shop," he says. "Booksellers have a wonderful product, yet they tend to have a flat version of the product online. The process should be more exciting than it is now."

Smith is keen to find ways for knowledgeable and passionate staff at Blackwell's -- the UK's largest academic bookseller -- to interact with consumers online. "We want to create an agile culture within the business -- to do that we need the right tools in the shops and a great ecommerce platform," he says.

5. You can boost performance with tried and tested technology.

QR codes might be more than 20 years old but retail firms are still finding new and interesting ways to make use of the technology. Mark Orchard, head of IT at food wholesaler Musgrave, says his firm is helping its retail partners to explore the potential of the technology.

Musgrave ran a technical trial in-store recently alongside an unnamed Belfast-based retailer. The firm in question used Facebook to push QR code offers to customers. Research showed about 75 per cent of customers who used the QR codes for free products also purchased additional items when shopping.

"The main benefit is being able to use technology to create additional sales - that can lead to more wholesale purchases from our business from the retailer, which helps us in terms of orders," says Orchard.

6. Payment mechanisms are changing but cash is still king.

Even the most traditional organisations are keen to use new technology. Victoria Cleland, chief cashier at the Bank of England, says the introduction of polymer bank notes from September this year will help reduce the risk of retail fraud.

Cleland says a long period of public consultation demonstrated strong support for the move, with many people suggesting the new notes were "cool". More than 30 other countries around the globe have already made a similar move.

"My team are getting more and more excited," says Cleland. "What started as a research and development programme a few years ago is now coming to fruition. The Bank must stay a step ahead of counterfeiters -- we need to protect our reputation and maintain confidence in the physical currency."

7. Cloud-based collaboration can improve business efficiency.

Change in the retail sector is not just focused on the consumer. James Wintle, global director of digital and technology at All Saints, says the fashion retailer is using Google Apps to improve collaboration between employees.

"Everyone knows technology works well at home -- we wanted to create social connectivity in the organisation and improve the speed and simplicity of communications," says Wintle, who said that using Google means the IT department spends 70 per cent less time managing technology.

"We've become much more efficient when running projects," he says. "We've given our people more time. That's crucial when you're working in a fast-paced business like All Saints. Using Google means communication is effortless."

More essential tech and business leadership stories

Editorial standards