Technology will determine which retailers will win as the retail market polarises, says Claranet

Customer experience is becoming a key competitive differentiator as the retail market polarises between those who maximise the time customers spend in contact with retailers, and those who seek to reduce the buying process to a minimum

The focus on customer experience is polarising the retail market into either delighting consumers with immersive buying experiences or making buying as fast and practical as possible. This is according to Managed Service Provider Claranet, who says that the effective use of technology will be a prerequisite to success in creating these kind of customer experiences.

Research from Planet Retail and Digimarc found that 63 per cent of retailers consider improving in-store and online customer service as the one action that would have the greatest impact on their organisation's profitability. Michel Robert, UK Managing Director at Claranet spoke about the significance of this statistic, and the resulting approaches retailers are using to improve customer experience:

With digital disruption fundamentally altering the ways retailers serve customers' buying needs, it is unsurprising that so many now put customer experience at the core of their competitiveness. We're increasingly seeing the market's approach to customer experience polarising between two distinct paths. On the one hand, you have those who seek to make the buying experience as practical and frictionless as possible, typified by Amazon. On the other, there are those retailers who want to involve customers in a brand experience, who eschew getting customers from consideration to purchase as quickly as possible in favour of delighting them and involving them in the buying experience."

Both dynamics have implications for retail technology leaders, as Michel Robert underlines:

Choosing to immerse consumers in a shopping experience has different technological implications from finding the most seamless way to get a potential buyer from consideration to purchase. For example, The Burberry Beauty Box in Covent Garden aims to engage visitors in an immersive brand experience, and deploys augmented reality (AR) technology to allow customers to virtually sample different nail shades. By contrast, Pets At Home deployed in-store iPads in order to make the administrative process of purchasing a pet easier and to reduce customer wait time by enabling more in-store purchases and registrations to be done away from the till.

The key difference is that the former maximises the time the consumer spends in contact with the retailer for every purchase, whilst the latter seeks to minimise this time. The technological priorities are therefore different – whilst the former seeks to deliver rich content to customers, whether that's an instore AR experience or an intricate online brochure, the latter removes as many steps from the buying process as possible."

Despite this difference in tactical priorities, these approaches both rely on the implementation of an effective IT infrastructure, according to Michel Robert:

Both the convenience and the more involved experience approach put a premium on network connectivity and other elements of IT infrastructure that enable the smooth functioning of anything from AR to ecommerce platforms. The Pets At Home example is illuminating here – the company had to switch network providers and roll out a brand new network to support the iPad system."

Michel Robert concludes that retail IT leaders should shift their approach to their day-to-day role to focus on creating a delightful or practical customer experience:

To enable either approach to work, IT leaders need to be able to remove themselves from the IT bubble and focus on the basic needs of customers. Taking the customer's perspective can unlock new areas where IT can make the customer experience either more immersive or more convenient."