Retail: The Give And Take of Social Media

As social media proliferates, pretty much every retailer is looking at how they can ”ride this wave” to their advantage. But while many retailers think of it as just another channel to advertise to your customers, social media can be so much more.

That’s because social media enables retailers to both listen to their customers and engage their customers. And that balance—the yin and yang, the give and take—is what’s required for retailers to realize social media success.

Can I hear you now?

In many ways, social media is an always-on focus group. Let’s say you’re a seller of women’s apparel. You see a cluster of tweets in which customers lament they can’t find the right size or don’t like the new colors for the fall season. You just got advance notice of what your point-of-sale (POS) reports won’t tell you for another month. You can take instant action to change the product mix at the retail storefront.  The reverse is also true… if your inventory control system is reporting an ‘out of stock’ on red dresses, but an overstock on black dresses, your social media campaigns need to adapt in real time to reinforce that ‘a girl can never have too many black dresses for the holiday season’.

Not only that, but you can also cross-tab social-media data by gender, age, those who shop on weekends, non-customers versus loyal customers, and so on. In fact, that’s a perfect example of Big Data in action—millions of bits of data that, with some sophisticated analysis, can reveal true insights. Once you have that, you can begin to understand how pricing, merchandizing, and couponing strategies can alter your customer experience and your margins.

Talking back

Social media also enables you to directly engage your customers—and increasingly, your competitors’ customers. Let’s say a customer tweets that she’s upset she left a competitor’s 20 percent-off coupon at home (which of course you would notice as you’re monitoring conversations about your competitors , aren’t you?) . That’s your opportunity to send a tweet direct to the customer with your own 20 percent-off coupon.

In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of social data is that it’s “living” . It’s a point-in-time data source, but because it’s unique and personal, it lets you measure unique trends over time. For example, you can launch an initiative to grow “share of voice” of a specific customer set, and measure precisely how your actions and engagement efforts influence those people over time.

That’s very hard to do with other data sources. And it’s what allows you to build a “target segment of one” to optimize customer experience for each individual customer.

Cloud computing, data analytics, and in-memory computing are crucial tools in combining and leveraging that social data with POS data, loyalty data, and syndicated data. Most retailers already have far more data sets than they ever anticipated. But they aren’t achieving the insights they could and should. Enriching those data sets with the million bits of social data requires thoughtful planning on the back end, where the data is stored, and on the front end, where it’s visualized.

Look before you tweet

For all its advantages, social media carries potential downsides. One is that as long as customers are interacting on Facebook or Google+, much of their data remains locked in Facebook’s or Google’s servers, and creating an environment where much of your most valuable data isn’t even something that you ‘own’. Some retailers might consider creating private (so called ‘owned’) social platforms where customers can engage—and where you can access their data and engage the customers directly in exchange for value you provide them.

To that end, never expect your welcome to extend beyond the terms of your relationship. Let’s say a customer “likes” your branded line of tools. He probably wants to be kept in the loop on your new ratchet set. But he doesn’t want to get involved in your company’s political conversations about immigration, minimum wage, or civil rights – no matter how noble they might be.

More important, never let your social activities cross the line into creepy. Perhaps you can aggregate data from a customer’s loyalty card, purchases, and social activity to determine with 100 percent certainty their income, marital status, and political views. That doesn’t mean you should. There has been ample media coverage of companies that became too invasive in the collection of data.

The customer you keep

Many of your customers are actively communicating on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. If you aren’t managing your social media presence, they may be doing it for you. If a customer repeats a completely erroneous allegation that you sell products made with child labor, for example, you have to be part of the conversation if you want to control the damage.

At the same time, don’t look to social media solely to engage your “complaining 10 percent.” Yes, you need to respond to customers who have had a negative experience. But what about the customer who refers to your coffee chain by tweeting, “Just ordered my favorite latte at my favorite cafe!”? You can respond, “And we love seeing you, too!” Customers who are acknowledged by the brands they love deepen their loyalty—and can become your best ambassadors.

It’s all part of the give and take of social media.

How Can Retailers Provide a Cohesive Brick-and-Mortar and Online Experience?

While cyber sales have started to overshadow window shopping, retailers cannot neglect their brick-and-mortar locations. As the e-commerce boom continues, retailers should focus on their competitive advantage—being able to provide superior customer service—to create a seamless brand to customer experience. By finding that leg-up to co-exist with online sales and mobile shopping, retailers can control the brand image that resonates with customers.

Let’s take a look at the most recent holiday shopping season, where sales account for between 20 and 40 percent of typical retailers’ total annual sales. Although one quarter of Americans surveyed said they never miss or usually visit at least one store on Black Friday, in-store sales were down by 3 percent, or $1.7 billion. However, the season wasn’t a total flop: online shoppers—a record breaking 66 million—were accountable for $1.2 billion in retail sales, up 15 percent over last year (National Retail Foundation).

Taking this consumer behavior into consideration, retailers are working to create a seamless experience when conducting business and serving customers, meaning:  streamlining where inventory can be searched, bought, returned and exchanged; brand planning and merchandising; and sales support and branding all under one roof: enter the omni-channel experience.

Consumers don’t see the walls that retailers are trying to break down as different channels; they only interpret the ease or enhancement retailers are making to benefit their shopping experience—and compare this experience to others that may be lacking these advancements. Retailers who were asked to assess the value of multi- vs. single-channel customers yielded conclusive feedback: consumers that connect with retailers via multiple selling channels are more profitable than ones who don’t.

It’s clear retailers recognize the need for a strong omni-channel offering, however those surveyed identified that not even a single operational process has been fully synchronized. So now that it’s established that merging the digital and physical selling worlds to create enterprise-wide visibility and exude one seamless customer experience is key, the question is: how?

People, processes and technology are all needed to break down these retail barriers and transform store-only models into a new-age brand experience. Agility is a key component to long term success in today’s retail landscape, and implementing new ideas and technology, while training employees to understand it all, can be difficult. Almost every function on the retail floor has some impact or dependency on technology in the data center. By adopting a centralized, command center approach under a single provider’s care, retailers can begin their transition into an omni-channel offering. Cost-effective service desk and support systems for various in-store technologies are able to support thousands of store locations worldwide and manage a wide range of vendors, and exponentially more products.

Employees can assist customers and provide a hands-on experience, while the command center can perform some of the following tasks to keep stores, inventory, planning and merchandising streamlined across all channels.

  • Consolidate in-store technology, such as POS systems and scanners; technology management; incident management and service all under a single provider’s support and care.

  • Proactively monitor in-store technology to keep availability high and mitigate potential breakdowns before they occur

  • Handle all administration, maintenance, system upgrades and patches

  • Available via a hotline for store employees to call if something goes wrong with an in-store system, such as a POS malfunction or a kiosk with a frozen screen

Over the past five years we’ve seen the number of retailers who operate in multiple channels double, so it’s apparent that mastering the omni-channel operation is not a luxury, but a necessity to survive in the retail industry. Upon initial implementation of a command center, we’ve seen the number of technological issues per store per month decrease by 50 percent. From an ongoing, monitoring standpoint, we’ve seen these issues reduced per store by at least an additional 15 percent—across thousands of stores within a chain.

As the adoption of a command center will help move your store forward with immediate fixes like POS malfunctions/upgrades and consolidated technology, a bigger picture solution will need to be applied in the future. By breaking the cycle of comparing online shopping vs. catalogue vs. in-store shopping, the brand’s channels will dissolve into a centralized seamless shopping experience.

Once a store can successfully operate as an omni-channel operation, phase two begins, which includes analyzing the aggregated data from these channels to create a 1:1 relationship with your customer. This means knowing your customers’ preferences, how they like to be communicated with, mobility options, how to promote sales or relevant purchases, payment preferences, and more.

First comes the omni-channel experience, and then comes leveraging big data to create a meaningful customer relationship. Despite technological advances, the bottom line is that brick-and-mortar retailers are here to stay, and now is the time for retailers to act. A command center has many benefits to a retailer as illustrated above, but technology is rapidly changing and retailers need to stay innovative to increase their competitiveness and ensure a smooth transition to omni-channel provider; otherwise they risk being left behind.

Best Practices For Today’s Retailer through Secure Mobile Technology

The retail industry has seen a dramatic increase in the use of mobile devices. In order to embrace the rapid evolution of mobility, retailers need to provide secure apps that allow store associates instant access to information and inventory. Retailers using mobile devices for check out and customer needs can process sales more quickly and decrease wait times, while remaining Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant. Retailers can implement the below best practices to create a seamless customer experience and a pleasant work environment for all store associates.

Protect customer data
Retailers must meet the requirements of the PCI Data Security Standard, which ensures consumer data is kept secure. The standard includes requirements for security management, policies, procedures, network architecture, software design and other critical protective measures. Though PCI has not yet released formal requirements for accepting payments with consumer-grade mobile devices, mobile device management (MDM) providers, such as AirWatch, partner with leading sled hardware providers to ensure all mobile transactions are secure and meet PCI’s most recent mobile payment security recommendations. In May 2012, the PCI council released an “At a Glance” document called “Accepting Mobile Payments with a Smartphone or Tablet.” It is likely that the guidelines within this document lay the framework for future requirements.

“PCI requirements can be very specific,” says Karl Ma, director of IT Security for a major fashion company and an AirWatch customer. “For example, requiring a seven character password to log into a device – things like that are not natively supported by most devices, so AirWatch was a must for us. AirWatch provides the security to meet PCI compliance and a lot of other state regulated laws. AirWatch has basically come to our rescue and helped us overcome these barriers, that by default, we couldn’t do on our own. We wouldn’t know how to achieve these compliance requirements without AirWatch.”

Lock down unauthorized browsing on store devices
With a comprehensive enterprise mobility management (EMM) solution, retailers can combat mobile browsing threats by using a secure browser on devices, by whitelisting or blacklisting specific websites, or by setting devices to kiosk mode. With kiosk mode, retailers have the ability to display store websites, self-checkout, inventory management or customer shopping apps for an interactive customer shopping experience. The possibilities to personally interact with customers on in-store devices are endless, but so are risks associated with handing a device to a customer. Secure browsing applications allow retailers to configure customized settings to define and enforce secure browsing policies. Implementing kiosk mode capabilities for customer-facing devices allows each user to pick up a device, enter their own login credentials and upon leaving that device, have that secure information wiped and no longer available to the next user.

Minimize time customers spend in lines
Retailers can ensure faster checkout for customers by providing an omni-channel shopping experience. With an omni-channel shopping experience, customers can interact and engage across several channels and platforms (mobile, online, catalog) simultaneously. An example of providing an omni-channel shopping experience includes enabling the customer to purchase an item using the retailer’s app, providing in-store pick up and the ability to process a return via the retailer’s website. This convenience and flexibility enhances the customer experience, increases sales and decreases wait times. In order to truly provide an omni-channel shopping experience, all channels must be fused together to give the customer a seamless experience.

Maintain up-to-date inventory and product information
With mobile devices, store associates have the ability to securely access documents, product information and current store inventory. In order to securely access these documents, retailers must implement a content repository solution within their mobile deployment. Mobile devices enable store associates to access real-time information, such as multi-media files, planograms, training manuals, HR systems and more. The integration with content repositories also enables retailers to introduce marketing campaigns and promotions to ensure visual consistency and proper brand representation. Retailers using a content repository have fulfilled the store associates’ need for easy access to corporate content and the ability to collaborate with others while in the store. A content repository such as AirWatch Secure Content Locker, delivers anytime, anywhere access for end users with two-way synchronization across devices, along with sharing and editing capabilities. These features ensure the right content is to the right people, anytime and anywhere.

When it comes to adopting any new technology, the less time retailers spend worrying about the security on devices, the more they can focus on driving core business strategies and enhancing customer experience. Therefore, understanding the best mobile practices empowering today’s retailer becomes vital to the mobility strategy. With the right mobility tools and secure real-time access to data, store associates can become very effective and persuasive extensions of an organization’s multi-channel initiation when it matters most, assisting a browsing customer. The retailers who do this well are converting browsing customers into loyal brand ambassadors.