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Technology to fight online threat

01 Feb 2012

New Zealand’s recent retail spending surge is a reason to celebrate and marks a time to reassess. While it has been suggested that online shopping poses a threat to the bricks-and-mortar retailer, the traditional retailer has advantages, which combined with a range of technological tools solutions, will ensure bricks-and-mortar will endure. New Zealanders recently had two causes for celebration: victory in the Rugby World Cup and the fastest quarter of retail growth since 2006. In fact, the total volume increase of retail spending at 2.2 % was robust by any measure. That said, with a population of roughly 4.4 million, the arrival of 800,000 people for the Rugby World Cup was predictably likely to make retail waves. Over the past year, reports of a changing market terrain and the much touted growth of online retail has sowed uncertainty regarding the possible future of bricks-and-mortar retailers. For example, a recent assessment by market researcher Nielsen’s reported that an estimated 46% of New Zealanders over 18 shop online, up from 10% in 2001. Bricks-and-mortar interactivity Still, there are fundamental bricks-and-mortar retail strengths that will ensure traditional retailing continues to succeed in the face of online competition, particularly with the support of channel partners who understand changing customer needs and how to supply customers with solutions that maximise these strengths. These are essentially human strengths. Bricks-and-mortar allow a shopper to see the product, touch it, examine it, ask questions in person and easily return a product, if necessary. Bricks-and-mortar stores allow rich immediacy and vital human relationships which support the retail process in ways that are simply impossible online. In other words, bricks-and-mortar offers the kind of interactivity online retailing can only dream of providing. Thus, the key for the bricks-and-mortar retailer is to enhance these strengths and underscore true interactivity with technology in the moments that matter.  One such moment that matters for shoppers is when need is met with comprehensive, in-store knowledge. While retail stores might not often be able to win on price point, they do help customers save precious time in getting the item they need when they need it, preventing them from getting the wrong item or finding a better solution.  Technology transformations The technological mix that will be best for each retailer is necessarily unique, but the benchmark is this: equip your customer service team with the ability to manage the floor, provide superior solutions and product information to customers on demand and enhance checkout. In short, utilise technology to turn your employees into an additive resource that transforms bricks-and-mortar retailing into a relationship builder, a solutions provider and an efficient product distributor. Handheld barcode scanners, wirelessly connected to a backend system, can arm a worker with real-time inventory accuracy. Microkiosks can create a collaborative atmosphere, assuring customers the power of being in the information driver’s seat and freeing up staff to provide those enriching human intangibles. The key is using technology to streamline the processes where the retailer can, while giving shoppers the right mix of autonomy and support. Some retailers have already adopted mobile point-of-sale devices and emailed receipts that enable staff to close sales anywhere in the store. Home Depot, an American home improvement retailer with 1970 stores, recently equipped its associates with 30,000 mobile computers. The devices provide the ability to track inventory, access product information, print labels, readily communicate with other employees and check-out customers wherever they are in the store. Future developments will make the in-store experience even richer. Radio frequency identification or RFID, for example, promises to give staff the ability to find product wherever it is in the store, bolstering revenue by eliminating waste and missed sales opportunities. Not every solution will be right for every retailer, but these and other technological tools will help towards maintaining New Zealand’s recent spike in retail sales into a continuing upward trend – not a departure from it. For the retailer and channel partner committed to enhancing bricks-and-mortar with these tools, the best is yet to come.