As the B2C sector has become predominantly digitalised, high-street brick-and-mortar shops are facing an existential threat.

In September 2023, 44 major retailer leaders published an open letter to the Chancellor asking to withdraw the upcoming business rates tax raise.

These impending challenges can be mitigated by retailers focusing on customer experience (CX).

The impact of inflation and cost increases puts even more emphasis on the need for the kind of customer experience that sets retailers apart from their competitors to remain resilient, reliable and compliant during difficult times.

CX, which has traditionally been thought of as an after-sales function, now comes into its own much earlier in the customer journey.

Retail Insight Network speaks to CX company Foundever’s client development manager Oriana Ascanio about how retailers should strategise their customers’ journeys.

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How can retailers identify specific customer needs?

Ascanio: When it comes to identifying and anticipating customer needs in retail, customer experience experts emphasise that the focus needs to shift depending on where the customer finds themselves on their journey.

At the pre-sales stages, market research and consumer trends intelligence are two brilliant ways to understand customer drivers and motivators.

During the purchasing phase, when the customer is most engaged, retailers have a perfect opportunity to actively ask questions to drive personalisation, while also reducing friction through interactive experiences.  Removing barriers between buyers and the brand is a core element of what we would consider an all encompassing CX strategy.

In terms of after-sales care, this is when technology can have the most transformative impact. From utilising interaction analytics and other forecasting tools, gathering and analysing this data can really put retailers in a position to proactively address their customer needs before they are even aware that their requirements are evolving. By anticipating customer needs, brands can have a consistent voice that resonates throughout their whole journey.

The question then shifts from how to identify specific needs to finding the best way to collaborate with your customers to gather the data required to elevate each touchpoint and co-create the kinds of experiences that drive life-long loyalty, and in this instance the key to a successful collaboration is personalisation.

Has digitalisation damaged the relationship between retailers and customers at all?

Ascanio: In today’s market convenience is king. Delivering the kind of flexibility customers want, and doing it at scale requires digitalisation, which has been a great enabler in that regard. The task now is to elevate digital experiences and to integrate them seamlessly, so the entire customer journey has a cohesive look and feel.

Where a few years ago, we’d see a debate between physical and digital shopping, consumer expectations have evolved and now call for the best of both worlds to map out a journey that is familiar, yet exciting, easy to follow, efficient, accessible, enjoyable, and personalised.

Gone are the days of retailers competing within their specific vertical, businesses in today’s retail sector are no longer just competing with each other, and are now competing with every other experience a customer can have. This is where technologies such as artificial intelligence, analytics, and automation can strengthen the connection between consumers and retailers to create value in the moments that matter.

How should smaller retailers approach CX in comparison to larger retailers?

Ascanio: Whether you have 10 customers or 10 million customers, ultimately what matters to each shopper is how you treat them and the experience you can give them in that particular moment, which is all about personalisation, efficiency and attention to detail.

In that respect, smaller retailers actually have the advantage of a more intimate relationship with their shoppers who they can get to know in a more individualised way. In fact, one of the challenges of working at scale is to keep that highly personable feeling alive regardless of the number of customers needing your attention at any given point, which is why it is so important for larger companies to invest well in AI that can bring them closer to their customer.

Combined with highly trained brand ambassadors, and efficient policies, that humanity is what keeps customers coming back for more. The key is to have a very clear strategy that can be easily followed throughout the organisation and even in collaboration with your customers so you can achieve your desired outcome together.

Bringing simplicity to complex interactions is one of the most effective ways to drive loyalty and create a enjoyable customer experience in the retail sector, whatever the size of a business.