3 Ways Retailers Use Digital Technology to Improve the In-Store Experience

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Sailthru’s first-ever Retail Personalization Index is based off an in-depth examination of the personalization strategies of 100 well-known retail brands. While many brands have made some great progress in using digital data to improve the customer experience, we also found a few areas where we might see major improvement over the next few years. Among them: The ability to use digital data to personalize the in-store experience, making shopping in physical stores more pleasant, more efficient, and more attractive.

While Amazon looks for ways to expand its physical presence in ways that are scalable and make sense for its business, brick-and-mortar retailers enjoy a rare head start over the digital juggernaut. The retailers in our study hadn’t exactly done a stellar job at applying digital data and personalization techniques to the in-store experience, however.

Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible: Several retailers in our study had taken strides to leverage customers’ digital profiles in-store with some success. Some of these efforts were more creative than others, and it became clear during our research that there’s a lot of work to be done in this area. Here are three observations from our study on how brands are attempting to bridge the gap between digital and physical.

Beacons

Beacons are a technology standard that allow mobile apps (on both iOS and Android devices) to listen for signals from “beacons” in the physical world and react accordingly, using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) personal area network technology. Essentially, when someone with an app that uses beacon technology walks by a physical beacon broadcasting a BLE signal, it can pick up that signal and react accordingly. Often, this will be to trigger things like push notifications, app actions, messages, and prompts.

Some of the largest retailers in our study, such as Walmart, Nordstrom, and Target, are using (or testing) beacon technology to send personalized messages to customers while they’re shopping in stores. When a shopper visits one of their stores with the brand’s mobile app running on their device, in-store beacons send those customers coupons for products in their shopping carts and messages about items on sale that may be of interest to those customers.

As far as we could tell, big brand beacon use tended to be creatively limited in this fashion. Offering up discounts as customers walk by particular item is pretty much the out-of-the-box use, and the most common implementation. There’s not much to separate what Walmart is doing here from what Target is doing outside of some differences in execution (Target limits the number of beacon-related messages you will receive in a single visit, for example). And even this strategy is filled with challenges: Customers need to have the brand app running on their devices as they move through the store, and if they move too quickly, the beacon messages will be received or noticed after the customer has moved well past them.

There were some bright spots, however: Frank & Oak, a smaller men’s retailer, shows how a more human touch can be applied to beacon technologies. When a high-ranking member of the store’s loyalty program walks into a Frank & Oak store, their mobile app, combined with a beacon,  alerts a staff member to offer the customer a freshly brewed cup of coffee.

Navigation

Here, retailers were a bit more clever. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s understand that contractors and do-it-yourselfers have very different expectations of their stores, and that locating a specific item in their stores, with or without the help of an apron-clad customer service associate, can be a daunting task.

Both retailers were able to use mobile apps to provide a solution that works for their brands and also enhances the in-store experience. A customer can go to the Home Depot website and stock their online shopping cart with the items they need. Then, when the customer enters the store, the mobile app will help find the proper aisle and shelf for those exact items.  Lowe’s uses augmented reality to much the same end, with wayfinding features to guide customers.

Rescuing lost sales and loyalty points

Several retailers in the study used mobile app features to mitigate potentially frustrating in-store experiences, and to ensure that customer sales weren’t lost to limited stock. Abercrombie & Fitch uses mobile technology to help makes sure customers get the sizes they want. The retailer’s mobile app includes a “scan to ship” feature that lets shoppers easily order the proper size if the store doesn’t have it.

Famous Footwear also uses its app to better bridge online and in-store. Customers that register for the store’s loyalty program can use the app to see both instore and online purchases. They can also use the app to register in-store purchases for rewards credits after the fact.

For too long, retailers have considered ecommerce and brick-and-mortar sales to be competing worlds. But it’s abundantly clear that data collected via online, mobile, and other platforms, can be leveraged to help customers get more out of their shopping experiences in physical stores. We hope to see more brands follow the example of these leaders, making shopping more rewarding for both customers and retailers.