2015 Outlook: The Customer Experience is Key

As we look to 2015, rather than speculate what top retailers will focus on, we asked them about their priorities in a series of surveys over the past year. The overall theme concentrates on enhancing the customer experience by expanding store technology, improving assortments and offering unified commerce experience.
Enhance the Customer Experience
Nearly all (95%) of the respondents in BRP's 2014 CRM/Unified Commerce Benchmark Survey indicated customer experience/customer engagement was one of their top three current initiatives. Additional top initiatives focusing on the customer experience included guided selling/clienteling, social selling and location-based mobile marketing.
An interesting initiative, still in the early stages, is the ability to identify customers when they walk in the store via their smartphones. This capability is a fundamental requirement for location-based marketing and personalizing the customer experience. Only 3% of respondents currently offer this ability, but 72% plan to implement it within five years.
Expand Customer-facing Technology in the Store
According to our 2014 POS/Customer Engagement Benchmarking Survey, customer-facing technology in the store was ranked as the most important area, with more than half of the retailers ranking it among the top three priorities.
Customers have information and technology available at their fingertips virtually anytime, and because consumers have become comfortable shopping online, they want that same digital experience in the store. Savvy retailers understand this and leverage customer-facing technology as part of the overall customer experience.
Improve Product Assortments
When asked to identify their business priorities in the 2014 Merchandise Planning and Allocation Benchmark Survey, 67% of respondents identified enhancing assortments as one of their top three priorities.
Retailers are investing in technology to improve their assortment processes, and in the past year we have seen a 550% increase in the use of social media for merchandise planning. To support a consistent brand experience, 28% of retailers have also made the step to offering the same assortment across all channels within the organization.
Increase Unified Commerce Capabilities
Based on retailer responses in the 2014 Supply Chain Benchmark Survey, 63% of retailers indicated "enable seamless customer experience online and in the store" as one of their top corporate initiatives and 29% ranked the "ability to buy anywhere, get anywhere, return anywhere" as a key priority.
For most of the companies we surveyed, this is no longer a 'someday' option, as 93% are planning or already implementing a unified commerce model to enhance the customer shopping experience. The process is long and complicated, but the good news is that many retailers have already undertaken projects to bring this holistic shopping experience to the customer and will continue to work on this in 2015.
With the availability of innovative technology, pervasive mobile devices and always-connected consumers, there continues to be limitless opportunities for retailers to enhance the shopping experience. 2015 is sure to be another interesting year for retail as we see further expansion of the personalized customer experience.

Ken Morris is principal at Boston Retail Partners.