Speaking to seven technology experts, we explored the role of tech in helping retailers have a smooth and successful holiday season through three pillars: shopping experience, customer support, and cybersecurity.
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The festive shopping period in the UK seems to get longer each year. Stock hits the shelves as soon as summer is over, Christmas adverts take over the TV once the nights draw in, and by the time December comes around, people are boasting about completing their gift buying.
With everyone hitting the high street or online to buy gifts for their loved ones at this time of year, retailers see a huge spike in demand. In fact, total spending in the UK is predicted to rise by 3.4% to almost £110 billion in the final three months of 2023.
But despite the increased demand that stretches retail staff and systems to their limit, customer expectations remain the same. Whether online or in store, shoppers want speed, convenience and a seamless experience. Understanding and having the processes in place to meet these expectations is crucial to not just a smooth festive season, but creating a strong relationship with customers that generates sales all year round.
Three ways Technology can Support Retailers During the busy Festive Season
1. Enhancing the Shopping Experience
This time of year can be a stressful time in retail. Battling to assist long queues of customers, stock flying out the doors quicker than it can be accounted, all while trying to offer service with a smile. But luckily, technology is on hand to help. Today’s retailers have a range of tools available to them to help provide a frictionless purchasing process for customers.
Rob Shaw, SVP and General Manager EMEA at Fluent Commerce, recommended that retailers must embrace data-driven solutions.
Modern order and inventory management systems can maintain real-time synchronisation of inventory data across all warehouses, stores and platforms. This offers unprecedented accuracy and reliability.
“During peak sales periods, this approach is invaluable in balancing the need for aggressive advertising with the reality of stock availability. Retailers can optimise this by offering frequent customer communication such as updates on expected delivery times,” said Shaw.
Glenn Akester, Technology Practice Director for Networks & Connectivity at Node4, added that leveraging technologies like cloud computing, SD-WAN, and ERP systems can help to improve back-office operations, bridge the online and offline retail worlds, enhance connections with warehouses and head offices, and streamline overall operations.
“For customers, the integration of digital tools and apps will elevate the in-store experience and shape the future of physical retail,” said Akester.
Another key technology taking the retail industry by storm is artificial intelligence (AI). Whilst it has been around for many years now, the boom of Generative AI in the last year has pushed the technology to the forefront.
It has the ability to transform the retail industry by providing a helping hand at every stage of the customer journey.
Dave Howard, Global Marketing Director for Retail at Intellias, said: “AI will assist at every stage of the retail life cycle to drive meaningful sales, gain new loyal customers and ensure the products are delivered to the customer without a hitch or any disruption.”
AI can assist with demand forecasting and marketing, through to customer support and detecting any fraudulent activity at the transaction stage.
“Implementing a smart and all-encompassing AI strategy is the best way to streamline the supply chain process, maximise sales, and make the most profit with minimal risk during this busiest consumer shopping time of the year,” added Howard.
2. Streamlining Customer Support
Customers may have questions or require support before, during, and after their shopping experience. Perhaps they have questions about a product before they buy it, they need help with the purchase itself, or they wish to return an item after the event.
No matter the subject or mode of communication, retailers must be on hand to provide a quick resolution, advised Dave Hoekstra, Technology Evangelist at Calabrio.
For this reason, 85% of retail contact centre managers agree that first contact resolution and abandonment rate are the most important metrics to achieve this year, according to Calabrio’s State of the Contact Centre 2023 report.
“However, at busy times of the year, it can be hard to keep waiting times to a minimum,” said Hoekstra.
Almost a third (31%) of retail contact centre managers reported that key skills like critical thinking and problem solving are impacted during stressful periods, impacting average handle and wait times.
“Contact centre managers must give their agents the right tools and training to prepare for the holiday rush. With the recent boom of AI, contact centres should consider utilising the technology to empower their agents,” said Hoekstra.
AI can automate routine tasks and handle simple enquiries to free up agents to handle more complex interactions quickly. Additionally, it can provide insights into agent performance that will also help organisations to refine their strategies.
“For example, they will be able to identify the best agents to be handling the busiest channels and most complex queries, and those who need more training ahead of the next major sales day,” added Hoekstra.
Another vital, but often overlooked, part of providing the best possible customer experience is first-rate cybersecurity.
During the holiday season, when demand is high and retailers are ramping up operations, cybercriminals are also heightening the volume and sophistication of their onslaught.
“As we head into ‘peak’ shopping season in the UK, retailers witness an immense volume of sensitive information coming through their networks,” said Chris Denbigh-White, Chief Security Officer at Next DLP.
With all of these transactions, consumers often include payment details, names, addresses and more. As a result, threat actors target retail organisations as their number one vertical during this time. And there is nothing that will ruin a customer’s day and a brand’s reputation more than the theft of credit card information.
It is crucial that shoppers and businesses alike are clued up on how to stay protected against these threats.
Denbigh-White recommended that retailers have robust data loss prevention strategies in place. These measures not only protect against external threats, but also mitigate risks from internal ones, whether malicious or negligent.
“Ensuring that sensitive customer data is safeguarded is not just a matter of regulatory compliance, but a critical aspect of maintaining consumer trust and preserving the integrity of the business. Implementing advanced security protocols and continuous monitoring systems is not just advisable; it is imperative in today’s digital age,” said Denbigh-White.
Brett Candon, VP International at Cyware, advocated for threat intelligence to also help businesses stay ahead of cybercriminals and protect their customers’ data.
“Threat intelligence helps enterprises get ahead of attacks, but it is not easy to segregate, correlate, and prioritise the huge volumes of available threat data to create a ‘single source of truth,” said Candon.
He also warned that one cybersecurity step is not enough – a multi-layer approach is key.
Candon added: “We must connect the dots. This next-generation approach to cybersecurity, often referred to as cyber fusion, unifies all security functions such as threat intelligence, security automation, threat response, security orchestration, incident response, and others into a single connected platform, which detects, manages, and responds to threats in an integrated and collaborative manner.”
AI can also offer assistance through its ability to monitor behaviours and detect suspicious activity.
Randeep Gill, Principal Security Strategist at Exabeam, explained how this technology is not just for the holiday season, but should be employed throughout the year by using behavioural analytics to establish normal behaviour for all users and assets in an organisation.
“This will help businesses to better understand anomalies in their diverse environments that could be indicative of a breach,” said Gill.
The holiday season can be a make or break for retailers and their relationships with their customers, with 73% of consumers admitting that they would switch to a competitor after a bad experience with a brand, according to a CX Trends 2023 report by Zendesk.
But with these three pillars addressed, retailers can feel more confident in providing the best and safest shopping experience that will keep shoppers coming back for every holiday season and throughout the year.
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