The 2021 holiday shopping season has already begun across the country as consumers visit their favourite malls and storefronts, both physical and digital, seeking out exceptional experiences. And, as the festive period really commences its crescendo with fast-approaching Black Friday and Cyber Monday events, retailers throughout the industry feverishly search for offering and service enhancements that will meet increasing consumer expectations. Heightened by the impacts of the pandemic, which resulted most significantly in an accelerated digitization of the world around us and shifting consumer behaviour, they are expectations that continue to increase. And, according to Marcelo Souhami, VP of Customer Experience at SAP Canada, the ability for retailers and brands to satisfy the desires of today’s consumer is going to be paramount as we head into the most important stretch on the retail shopping calendar.
“Customer behaviour seems to be crossing over from high expectation to impatience,” Souhami suggests. “There’s a growing perception among consumers that retailers and brands have had plenty of time and opportunity during the pandemic to be able to sort out and optimize their online offering. Because many have, a new gold standard has been set with respect to the experiences that consumers expect. This standard continues to rise. Retailers have learned over the course of the past 18 months or so that their communication with customers needs to improve. Any disconnect from the buying, delivery or return experience just won’t be acceptable anymore. Retailers and brands need to make sure that they’re communicating effectively with their customers at every step of their journey. By stating and keeping the promise, whether it has to do with product quality, returns policies, providing expertise and advise concerning the product and recommendations of adjacent complimentary products, is critical. Communication with the customer has to be clearer than ever before, and it has to be executed at all touch points.”
One of the most important of those touch points with respect to today’s evolving retail operation, suggests Souhami, is mobile. With the estimated number of smartphone users in Canada in excess of 30 million – a number that continues to grow – and steadily increasing mobile internet user penetration, he may just be right. Current usage and penetration within the country illustrate Canada as one of the world’s most connected online populations, he says, underscoring the need for retailers and brands to develop meaningful and effective strategies in order to support the mobile experience consumers are seeking.
“It seems as though many within the industry have been talking about a mobile-first approach for a very long time,” says Souhami. “It’s amazing to see that some brands are still hesitant to treat mobile as the de facto channel from both a conversion and marketing perspective. Retailers and brands have got to be focusing on their mobile strategies and assessing whether or not the mobile experience they offer is adequate. When product information is being shared, does it render properly in the mobile environment, and is the story consistent? For those that have developed a quality mobile experience, there are a lot of opportunities to be had. People have been couped up in their homes for a very long time and are beginning to crave experiences. The retailers that are able to create a means by which consumers can interact with product or service in unique and different ways, leveraging innovations like augmented reality, will be able to elicit their interest and engender loyalty in them.”
Evolving omnichannel behaviour
As important as Souhami believes mobile to be, however, it is but one of the channels comprising the entirety of the retail ecosystem. As such, it must be considered as part of a larger omnichannel retail experience being developed and offered by retailers and brands in which the transition from channel to channel is seamless and complementary. However, more significant than their need to build the experience, suggests Souhami, is the understanding that retailers and brands must develop concerning rapidly evolving consumer behaviour and the ways in which they are traversing through the omnichannel environment.
“There’s been a bit of a shift in how consumers are leveraging omnichannel within their shopping journey,” he recognizes. “The original conversation was about people going into the store, discovering products and then going home to purchase them online. Most recently during the pandemic, however, people have started to do a lot of their discovery online and then go into the store to buy the item. This shift in behaviour actually presents retailers and brands with the opportunity to reduce returns with the physical store serving as a critical showroom and destination for product review and confirmation. If built and executed properly, a strong omnichannel offering can also reduce friction within the customer journey, creating efficiencies and enhancements, allowing retailers to deal with these changes smoothly.”
Supply chain efficiencies?
Beyond ensuring that consumers are able to interact with the brand whenever and wherever they want within one seamless shopping experience, Souhami suggests that a focus must also be paid to finding efficiencies within the supply chain. Uncertainty has reigned over global supply since the onset of the pandemic, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to container shortages and delays occurring all over the world. They are negative effects on the retail supply that, according to Souhami, can result in disappointment and dissatisfaction among consumers. However, he adds that through creativity and innovative thinking, useful modifications and adjustments can be made, yielding improved outcomes.
“Supply chain is absolutely going to be the boogeyman for retailers this holiday season,” he asserts. “And, because there’s been so much disruption to the supply resulting in a lot of negative customer experiences, the challenge seems to be magnified. In order to combat this, retailers have got to ensure that they clearly communicate their supply chain situation to their customers, including availability of inventory and delivery times. People will not convert to paying customers if they don’t have a high level of confidence that their needs are going to be met. With respect to the product itself, retailers need to promote availability. Whatever product they have in stock is the supply that should be prioritized. Retailers’ customer care staff should be empowered to help address issues and problems, proactively offering solutions. In these ways, retailers can optimize their supply chains and build trust in their customers.”
Readying the organization
In order to properly empower their customer care teams, however, Souhami suggests that a readiness plan needs to be developed. In doing so, he says that cross-team communication is promoted, leading to further efficiencies throughout the operation and an elevated experience for the customer. In addition, he adds that it instills confidence in retail teams, from the supply chain through to frontline staff, that they’re prepared and equipped to deal with any of the challenges that they might face within a changing retail environment.
“Retailers can’t assume that their teams are going to know how to deal with all of the issues that are going to arise,” he states. “They’ve got to look ahead an anticipate where there might be issues and challenges with promotions or anything else and understand how to use the tools available to fix those issues. If customers are reaching out for support, despite the channel they’re reaching out on, are you and your teams ready to provide that support in the most effective way? IT usually prepares readiness plans for the holiday season in order to deal with higher volumes of ecommerce orders. But, it’s just as important to prepare staff that will be supporting the delivery of these higher volumes and all-important communication with the customer.”
Souhami goes on to explain that a readiness plan not only prepares staff across the organization with the knowledge and tools to address issues and challenges, it also provides them with a clearer view into projected volumes and demand. It allows them to merchandise more effectively and market personalized promotions and enticements to customers more accurately, allowing for a much more strategic approach to just about everything. Underpinning all of the readiness and projections is the power of data. It’s something that the multinational software developer is intimately familiar with, and a tool that Souhami reckons is more valuable today than at any time previous.
“At SAP, we believe that if you’re not data-driven, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities that you didn’t even know existed,” he says. “Data simply takes a lot of the guesswork out of a number of retail and business decisions. When it comes to things like supply chain or the customer experience, data makes everything so much simpler, almost pointing to trends and other spikes to pay attention to. More and more, the quality of the data is being valued above all. So, all of the consented data that retailers can earn from their customers will become increasingly valuable and beneficial to the brands collecting it. It’ll provide them with insights concerning the products consumers are interested in, as well as those that they’re planning to purchase. Even abandoned online shopping carts are yielding incredibly valuable data, rich information that can be leveraged in order to enhance the customer experience.”
Supporting the retail experience
In the end, for a company that is massively involved in analyzing, dissecting and ultimately understanding the customer experience through the accumulation and use of data, SAP is helping to support the enhancement and improvement of businesses all over the world. In fact, it runs an estimated €576 billion of gross merchandise value on its commerce systems in addition to housing 3 billion customer identities. It lends dramatically to the company’s collective insights and expertise. However, more importantly, says Souhami, it’s insights and expertise that allow the teams at SAP to continue supporting the efforts of retailers and brands everywhere.
“When it comes to succeeding and growing as a retail organization, there are obviously a lot of moving parts to consider. But, no matter which department within the organization or segment of the operation that you’re talking about, it all comes back to the customer and the experience that you’re providing for them. Leveraging as many insights from as many sources as possible can be the difference between growth and stagnation, or worse. As the world becomes more and more digitized and connected, these data and insights are being generated from a multitude of channels and platforms. Those who can properly utilize it can make more informed decisions, more easily identify opportunities for growth and elevate the customer experience to heights never imagined.”