Over the past five decades or so, retail business has undergone a phenomenal transformation, thanks to inventions and technological advances. Cash registers, coupons, shopping carts, barcodes to e-commerce – progress has been made in a variety of fields and verticals. These have not just streamlined the shopping experience, but have actually improved the lives of customers. The outbreak and the prolonged impact of the pandemic has also led to significant changes in which the retail sector operated earlier, due to the disruptions caused in the supply chain.
The increased attention and momentum given to the digital transformation of retailers, especially in recent years, is the major driving trend in the retail industry that is bridging the gap between customers and brands. Whereas traditionally, customers made their buying decision on the store shelf, giving brick-and-mortar retailers the opportunity to get first-hand insights into shopper preferences and behavior. Although digital transformation initially appeared as a hindrance for them, it has actually improved the functioning of online and offline customer management. The rise of e-commerce and practices like mobile shopping has actually given retailers a better idea of what shoppers are actually looking for, and also how buyer behavior has changed in the new normal.
Another innovation that plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between customer and brand is a real-time query/complaint resolution mechanism powered by tools like live chat for instant assistance. If a customer today has a question regarding a specific brand or product or service, they can simply use the 24×7 chat support offered on the apps as well as web platforms. With new technologies in place, live chats are powered by advanced chatbots that practically work like virtual assistants. There are now bots in place that understand a query or suggestion even if the words are somehow convoluted or vary from the set format, of course with the help of AI. Additionally, bots are designed to escalate a problem directly to a human agent at the backend if they are not programmed to solve the same problem.
Conversational AI, which is essentially a set of technologies powering automated messaging and voice applications, further enables human-like interactions between humans and computers. Conversational AI recognizes text and speech while supporting context to respond in a manner close to human conversation. The different technologies used by conversational AI include automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, advanced dialogue management and machine learning. The future of it also looks very promising in the form of voice bots.
On top of that, innovations such as virtual dressing rooms and virtual reality have made the retail and shopping experience more convenient and conducive to the norms of the pandemic-induced new normal. New era tools like these enable retailers to enable the live experience of products for consumers. The latter need not take the trouble and risk of going to the market to buy any product as they can try the same and get a feel for it from the comfort of their own home. For example, the virtual dressing room or fitting room overlays the selected item over the customer’s live video feed, giving them an idea of the fit, size and style. Based on this, customers can decide whether or not they intend to purchase the garment or any other item.
The other retail innovation that is closing the gap is omnichannel engagement. Now, retailers have tools to leverage that can enable customers to reach brands and vice versa, though not one defined channel but multiple channels including SMS, emails, social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, etc. Omnichannel engagement essentially refers to the integration of all internal channels into a single interface, so that agent performance can be streamlined and the best customer experience can be digitally enabled, thereby alleviating the need for customers to visit stores. Plus, sales and marketing go beyond the website with the integration of tools that make omnichannel engagement a reality. Any brand can reach more customers if engagement occurs through multiple channels rather than a single platform like its own web outlet.