Machines Serving People? The Personal Experience at NRF 2020

At National Retail Federation 2020 in New York City, the trend continues towards automation and harnessing AI to make it easier for customers. One could say that it’s “The Rise of the Machines”, but in fact, the Machines are increasingly being used to connect customers with the right employees – not just a bot. My interest at NRF is on tech that touches the customer. Although core technology, back-office, and solutions such as Workforce Management and Supply Chain Management are important, I focused on what a customer could touch and feel.

A great example in leveraging tech to create a personal experience is SEPHORA, who continued to add new ways to make it easy for customers to connect with associates in the store.

Amy Eschliman, Senior Vice President for client engagement at SEPHORA, shared her observations about serving the dual needs for on-line purchases and in-person consultation. For SEPHORA, enabling their community to set up an in-store appointment or attend a class is critical. “In beauty, people have to deal with the products in person, there’s no other way,” Eschliman said. “So we needed to drive traffic into the stores.”

SEPHORA uses a variety of ways to enable appointments and classes in stores. You can make an appointment from their website, the SEPHORA mobile app, Facebook Messenger, directly from Google search results (Reserve with Google), and Google Assistant (“Talk with SEPHORA”). SEPHORA is a clear leader in making every surface area for interacting with their customers an opportunity to connect both with the “brand” and the “people behind the brand”. They want to be where their community is online, and then make it easy as pie for the customer to connect to an enthusiastic SEPHORA associate.

Google continued to up their retail game at NRF 2020. Their message to retailers has migrated from infrastructure and analytics (Google Cloud) into direct customer contact: Google Shopping and Google Assistant for Enterprise.

Nestled in the Google booth was a demonstration by Discount Tire, which was one of the most intriguing end-to-end customer experience demos at the event. The kiosk was anchored by a red Mini on a sliding bar illustrating five steps of the experience. Customers started by saying “Talk to Discount Tire” on Google Assistant (similar to SEPHORA), and then navigating through an AI-assisted chat to book a time at their nearest dealer. The demo continued, showing how the store associates attached an IoT trackable “fob” to the customer’s car keys. This not only helped customers know where their car was in the process, but allowed the system to track which bay the car entered, entry time, exit time, and when the keys were returned to the counter.

The other side of the “customer experience” is making it easy for employees. We all know that a happy and engaged staff is the key to a great customer experience, but historically frontline employees have been underpowered with less knowledge about a customer than Amazon has. When a customer enters a store and is greeted by name by an associate that understands who the customer is and what they want, the employee is both empowered and energized.

One of the coolest solutions for empowering employees is Theatro, which has a unique voice-controlled mobile platform designed for frontline hourly employees. It allows these employees to “talk to a machine” (a central AI brain), and then execute all sorts of tasks — such as checking stock, moving employees to a needed area (e.g., add a cashier), or notifying the right staff member when a customer arrives for an appointment. This lets staff do their jobs in a heads up, hands free manner to stay engaged with customers while not losing eye contact! Cisco recently invested in Theatro, and a combined solution with Cisco hardware and Theatro software could be seen at Neiman Marcus’ Hudson Yard location, as well as the Cisco Booth at NRF.

There are many options for brands to provide tools for their employees to engage at a personal level with customers. I looked at several technology providers that demonstrated interesting solutions at their booth or presented case studies with customers, focusing on solutions that are live in today’s market. These are generally categorized as “Concierge”, “Checkout”, “Clienteling”, or “Endless Aisle” apps, but they all share the same value proposition: making the employee’s job easier to connect personally with customers.

  • Salesfloor showed their live demo of their associate marketing tools, live shopping apps, and online storefront used at Chico’s, White House Black Market, Soma and Chico’s Off the Rack. The demo put the user “in the shoes” of the retail associate and how each solution made their daily tasks easier, and more fulfilling, in working with customers. I liked that their demo was integrated into the live Chico’s site, making it much more realistic and impactful. Salesfloor displayed their glass-towered award for Best Omnichannel Customer Experience Solution at their booth.
  • Mad Mobile demonstrated their mobile POS (MPOS) and self-checkout solutions. By focusing on Apple’s platform — and with their iOS expertise — Mad Mobile and their partner Aila showed an impressive interactive kiosk for MPOS and self-checkout. The Mad Mobile Concierge app also integrates clienteling, endless aisle, and fulfillment. Mad Mobile shared that their customer, Stein Mart won the 2020 GOLD award from Retail Touch Points for mobile strategies.
  • Tulip showed their Apple oriented solutions, including the store associate app that looks up products, manages customer information, checks out shoppers, and communicates with clients. Tulip’s CEO, Ali Asaria, appeared in a panel discussion with their customer Mulberry, and engaged in a lively conversation on what personalization means to customers, and how it is critical to the in-store shopping experience for customers and employees as well.
  • Newstore demonstrated their platform for retailers, with a focus on integration (APIs) into systems such as Order Management (OMS) as well as mobile POS. Their Apple-based app showed how a store associate could access endless aisle, mobile checkout, store fulfillment, see real-time inventory, and perform clienteling. CEO Stephan Schambach presented with customer GANNI to discuss how the brand provided an improved shopping experience to customers both online and in-store.

At NRF 2020 it was great to see the increased focus on technology that makes both the customer and employee experience better. It’s encouraging that retailers have solutions to avoid the “retail apocalypse”. The answer is simple although still a challenge to execute: make the retail store a great experience, and use as much support from technology providers as possible to smooth out the rough edges.

Written by Cimarron Buser

Cimarron focuses on building strategic partnerships and has held senior global business development positions for SaaS and technology companies. He also is active in providing mentorship for new startups and for entrepreneurs.

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