Bricks & clicks, big data, multichannel, omnichannel – is ‘customer experience’ the latest buzzword to worm its way into the retail-tech lexicon?

You can’t visit a conference without hearing the term bandied around at least forty times in every keynote and it seems the retail community is beginning to tire of it.

“Customer experience is just such an overused term – CX is retailing,” said Martin Draper, technology director at Liberty, speaking at a discussion between members of the RBTE advisory board. “It’s another buzzword concept, like chief phygital officer.”

Seamless customer journey

But be it in-store or online, are retailers even offering a great customer experience? Does anyone even know what good ‘customer experience’ is?

According to Forrester, while 72% of businesses say improving CX is a priority, only 63% of marketers are prioritising the technology implementation to ensure this happens.

But Miya Knights, head of global retail technology practice at Planet Retail, doesn’t think CX is merely a buzzword. “I think it refers to a genuine category of the good and bad encounters that we’ve all shared while shopping,” she said.

“The fact we’re referring to CX more is because technology is giving customers more choice and putting them in control,” she explains. Those retailers that can effectively track and optimise their offer in line with this activity compete more effectively. The exponential growth of online shopping in itself is testament to this.”

Shop Direct is one retailer investing heavily in the sexiest of CX technologies – artificial intelligence to power chat bots to communicate with shoppers, but many retailers believe good customer experience begins with joining up online and offline channels to create a seamless customer journey.

“It’s not about making every interaction through every channel exactly the same,” said Draper. “It’s about ensuring that it makes sense to the customer as to why it may be different.”

Martin Alden, head of commercial development at Wyevale Garden Centres, agreed, he believes customer experience is actually about relevance.

“There might be many multiple customer journeys, but the only one which matters is the journey they want to make that day.”

Taking grocery as an example of multiple customer journeys, Fabrice Khullar, head of product online and omnichannel at Sainsbury’s, describes how technology can help improve the customer experience, but only for the customers who choose to use the technology.

“In grocery, there is such a wide demographic, some people want to get in and quickly buy a meal deal and get back to the office; some customers want to take their time,” he explained at the RBTE advisory board meeting last month.

“When I think of customer experience I think of joining up all those worlds and use cases – some customers go to the checkout on one visit and then another time they will use self-checkout. If we automated everything we would risk alienating a large part of our customer base. Therefore, we are mindful of finding the right balance as conversely, we simply can’t ignore new technology.”

Colleague is king

But Jamie Korda, retail enterprise architect at Asda, believes technology is not the answer to every question.

“Customer experience is about consistency. You can have the best technology in the world, but if your colleagues aren't engaged, you’ll struggle to deliver great customer service. We already have friendly colleagues so didn't need to push very hard when we actively encouraged them to greet and thank every customer and we've seen an improvement in our CPS,” he said.

“The thing that makes you come back to Asda is the colleagues on the shop floor.”

Meanwhile, Alden’s garden centre customers are a much narrower demographic than the array of supermarket shoppers.

“Our customers are a little older, as are some of our own colleagues, and they love horticulture and a long dwell time prompts a conversation.”

Alden says some customers visit with very limited horticultural knowledge, wishing to gain advice from Wyevale colleagues and the retailer is starting to consider how technology can be used to connect the colleague and the customer.

But where Wyevale and Asda’s customer journeys may be different, their colleagues’ struggles are similar when it comes to using new in-store technologies.

“We also have to take the colleagues on the journey,” explained Alden. “They are the ones using the technology. If you don’t take them on the journey and present them with the shiny new stuff without consultation, they may reject it because change is different.”

And if the customer-facing colleague is not on-board with change, the customer never will be.