One of the greatest lessons we learned from 2020 was that the COVID-19 lockdown changed the way we live and how we shop. Throughout 2020, the move to digital shopping has accelerated and expanded into categories such as groceries, sporting goods and home improvement.
Consumers under lockdown spent more time online, researching and shopping. While e-commerce revenues surged overall, economic uncertainty is shifting demand to essentials, typically lower-margin products and categories.
The increase in e-commerce activity created a demand for hyper-personalized digital shopping experiences driven by AI technologies. As these technologies gained a stronger hold, they will shape how we can reinvent retail stores in 2021.
One concept that came to light in 2020 we can expect to continue over the next 12 months is that of the “intelligent store.” According to Gartner’s Emerging Technologies and Trends Impact Radar: Artificial Intelligence in Retail report, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered consumer behavior, shopping and purchase patterns, exposing fundamental weaknesses in retailers’ business processes and technology infrastructure. The convergence of emerging AI technologies with IoT and 5G will enable the “intelligent store” to play a compelling and differentiating role in unified commerce.
However, the report also states that emerging AI technologies (e.g., edge AI, smart robots, machine learning, cloud AI developer services, and AI business and technology services) will fail to deliver significant improvements to retail processes unless retailers come to grips with legacy processes, talent gaps and non-collaborative cultures.
To create an intelligent store, retailers should prioritize AI technologies and algorithmic techniques based on their retail ecosystem and roadmap. For short-term (within a year) AI planning, use machine learning, and AI business and technology services. To overcome barriers to adoption, the retailer should use a modular approach to incorporate AI capabilities, focusing on selective use cases and processes. Such an approach will allow one to demonstrate value in a line of business before rolling out across the retail ecosystem.
Increasing spend on AI technologies, or hyper-personalization, to provide a superior online shopping experience is a good investment as e-commerce surged in 2020 and will most likely continue to grow in 2021. A recent Researchscape International study found that marketers overwhelmingly agree (99%) that personalization helps advance customer relationships, with 78% claiming it has a “strong” or “extremely strong” impact.
And 92% state that their customers and prospects expect a personalized experience (up from 85% last year). When asked what drives personalization within their organizations, marketers cite delivering better customer experiences (89%), increasing loyalty (61%) and generating measurable lift/ROI (59%) as top motivating factors.
E-commerce will no doubt continue to shift to a greater demand for hyper-personalized experiences, which includes providing the shopper with an omnichannel experience. Here are some tips to ensure that your site is optimized for personalization to increase sales and customer loyalty.
1. You have to provide an engaging, in-the-moment, 1:1 shopping experience. If you are out of a product, tell them, and be able to offer an appealing, alternative product instantly. If you can let them know when the product they seek will be available again, so much the better.
2. Ensure you are offering products and services that contextually relate to the consumer’s needs, incorporating factors such as relative geo-location, events and weather. Who are they, where are they, and when are they shopping must be factored in instantly.
Let’s say a consumer residing in Miami is price-conscious, and it’s March. A retailer would offer warm-weather clothing displayed from low-price to high. But if the consumer travels to Denver in that same month and browses the site, the retailer should offer the consumer cold-weather gear instead that is readily available in inventory so it can be shipped right away.
3. Follow consumers across all channels and provide the most updated information so you can stay engaged and relevant. Multiple devices are still in use even though we’re staying home. People may start browsing for an item using their laptops during the day and move to a tablet and/or mobile phone in the evening to finish their purchase. It’s our job to follow them from device to device to ensure a seamless shopping experience.
4. Scale your personalization efforts. Consumers can detect when they receive mass personalized engagement such as those based on pre-defined, static segments. Retailers need to recognize that consumers have become much more digitally savvy and want to be understood and engaged in a more personable way that respects their needs, likes and preferences.
However, creating and maintaining a large number of static segments is not scalable. Scaling requires AI to create dynamic segments based on triggered activities, consumer demographics, historical and in-the-moment behavior. Dynamic segments are critical to providing a timely, relevant and helpful experience that your consumers value.
Retailers who invest in AI technologies that create superior online shopping experiences while focusing on leveraging technologies to create intelligent stores will reap the rewards. Those who don’t will struggle as digital transactions become the core of the consumer’s shopping habits across many industries.
Debjani Deb is co-founder and CEO of ZineOne, a provider of AI-powered personalization platform. She leads the execution of ZineOne’s vision and is responsible for the overall company performance. Previously, she was the co-founder of EmPower which was sold to Genpact and the Worldwide CSO at GCI, a WPP company. She has also worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, ONI systems, Mayan Networks and AT&T Bell Labs.