By Naomi Palmer, Digital Director at Retail Marketing Group
This October, IRX 2021 took place at the NEC in Birmingham. Before the pandemic, the event signalled the key trends that stormed the Retail and Supply Chain industry over the previous year. Now entering a post-pandemic world, this year’s event explored the last two years of retail, with the 2020 event having been cancelled due to lockdowns. The main theme focused on drastic new innovations that have been developed in order to help the retail industry thrive in what was – and still is – unprecedented times.
Not only did the event look back, it showcased what can be seen as the ‘evolved retail industry’, detailing retailers versatility and determination that is being taken forward and expanded on, to withstand any economic or environmental challenge that they could face in the future.
Growth of Omnichannel
As was made clear in multiple workshops and talks over the course of the two day event, the pandemic has accelerated a change in customer behaviour. Consumers demand convenience, they need an easy, seamless experience and can become distracted very easily. This was a trend that was growing steadily before the pandemic, yet COVID-19 brought forth a new wave of digital translation that made eCommerce the main source of retail for consumers.
Omnichannel is no longer a new term for retailers, and for many, it has been a baptism of fire into the customer experience strategy. With the global pandemic and numerous lockdowns, omnichannel strategies became the primary focus for many retailers, as without it, they would not have been able to function and would have quickly shut down. For many, omnichannel is being everywhere the consumer is, when they want it and how they want it. This is shown through strategies like BOPIS, click & collect and live streaming.
Yet one stand out comment made by RedEye during one of their talks was that the customers do indeed have the control, but it is the retailers that have the power. Consumers will go where they are led, and this is why omnichannel is such a successful strategy. The aim is to see where the consumers are and be seen there. Once the brand is seen and has gained their interest, they are guided through call to actions and interactive content that will lead them to a possible purchase.
To do this successfully, retailers must engage the consumers at the perfect moment, a fact that was stressed upon at the event by multiple speakers. This is where innovative new technologies can play a big part.
Innovation in the Face of the Pandemic
What was perhaps the overarching theme of the IRX event was the new technologies and services that have grown out of the pandemic, designed to enhance every stage of the retail industry. When walking around the floor, the range of technologies varied from 3D shopping experiences and augmented reality for products, to live personal shopping channels and a multitude of new payment schemes.
What was perhaps the most interesting aspect to see though was whilst all this technology was being created, the purpose was to generate a more human connection for consumers. With the last two years depriving consumers of the human relationship aspect of retail, brands have clearly seen that alongside a seamless experience, consumers have missed the personal interaction generated from brick and mortar stores. Social media showcased successful variations of this during lockdowns, with live stream shopping rapidly rising in popularity.
Now services are expanding on this to generate variations of live video product demos, one-on-one video chats in place of text chats, and trained online sales ambassadors. One fact that was made clear at the event is that eCommerce is not going away anytime soon, and that for some consumers, shopping at home is far easier and quicker than going out. Yet services proposed by companies such as Storey that were showcased at the event will give customers a digital experience that feels personal and human in a new hybrid retail environment.
The Power of Data
Crucially, none of the new technology showcased over the two day event would be possible without data. Another key takeaway from IRX 2021 was the focus placed on software and data systems. Many brands such as Perfomanalytics enable clear data collection and analysis for retailers, to help personalise and target the perfect products to the right person. Systems like these will be vital going into 2022.
At the beginning of the eCommerce takeover, it was recommended that a retailer’s ecosystem should include Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Email Service Provider (ESP), and Point Of Sale (POS) systems to get ahead of the competition. Now, what has been made clear after the event is that not only should retailers have these systems, but they all need to work together and become automated to stay ahead.
With the ever-increasing use of eCommerce and the need for omnichannel technologies and strategies, automation is no longer a ‘nice to have’ option, it must be looked at as a ‘must have’. Many small businesses at the event spoke about doing every task manually and that this is a value for them to maintain whilst their business grows. However, what has been outlined by the more experienced retailers is that no businesses, whether large or small, have the manpower or time to be able to do everything, especially when data analysis and all the above systems get involved and become heavily relied upon.
Automation simplifies and removes as much low-value administrative work as possible from the employee workload, streamlining manual, repetitive processes that take up too much time. Automation makes it simple to access and use the data available to improve operations and in-store experience, helping retailers work smarter and fueling continuous improvement and company growth, a primary aim for many brands at IRX 2021. This process can be used at every level of retail; from inventory and warehouse management, to marketing and in-store experiences. Yet retailers must not get too swept away, in fear of losing the human-touch that consumers are now craving coming out of the pandemic. It is important to maintain the human element of a brand in order to build good relationships and develop higher levels of customer loyalty.
Over the course of the two days, many brands and retailers showcased their services, speakers explored both new and old topics, and new ideas were discussed among attendees and exhibitors alike. Yet the prevailing atmosphere showed the determination and resolve expressed by the retail industry as a whole, to not only come out of the pandemic swinging but to enter into 2022 with new technologies and a willingness to grow as much as they can.