As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail is gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews. This week, it's the turn of K3 Retail's strategic business development director, Tony Bryant.

Travelling back from the National Retail Federation's (NRF) Big Show in New York, last month, K3 Retail's strategic business development director, Tony Bryant, says he found himself buoyed by the changing mind-set in the industry.

After a week of meetings with retailers, store tours and hosting an exhibition stand, Bryant felt that the retail industry is starting to move away from talking in buzz-terms and truly beginning to pay attention to the customer.

"Coming back from NRF, I was getting quite motivated around the customer journey focus rather than still talking about multichannel, omnichannel, cross-channel, or whatever -channel we want to call it," he told Essential Retail.

"Customer experience (CX) is where we've got to win the hearts and minds of people in retail. In fashion it used to be that product was king, but now it's a mix around product and customer. How many more customer service directors do we have out there now?"

Industry trends back up Bryant's argument with the recent appointment of former Marks & Spencer man Benjy Meyer as Majestic Wine's head of customer journey a case in point. Andy Harding's chief customer officer role at House of Fraser, which he took on last year is another example of boardrooms identifying the importance of putting the shopper at the heart of business strategy.

There was even a Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) formed in the US in 2011, reflecting what the organisation describes as a maturing customer experience management field, as well as a growing number of companies recognising CX's importance as a key ingredient in building and maintaining loyalty.

CXPA said that the business world had reached a point where the CX sector required a "unified, informed, collective voice to guide its evolution". It also comes at a time when a retail industry event does not seem complete without a senior executive being disparaging about the word "omnichannel", with many observers believing it to be a phrase that has actually added to the confusion of the industry as it navigates a path of change and disruption.

Much of the new focus on CX in stores is driven by technology investment, exemplified by retailers such as Ralph Lauren, which recently launched its connected store complete with interactive fitting rooms and RFID. Bryant was given a tour of the new-look Ralph shop in New York, last month.

He said: "One of the big things coming out of NRF, from a store tour at Ralph Lauren, was seeing the way the shop used fitting rooms, upselling, cross selling, and interactive features in such an impressive way – the customers and store associates were engaging at all levels."

The store of the future is a perennial concept, of course, with strategies, technology and capability always changing – but Bryant argues that some of the things that have been envisioned for a number of years are now becoming a reality.

"For the first time, this concept is out there. We've been talking about the store of the future for some time now. It's not the Burberry in central London – it's Ralph Lauren in NYC and it's better than the Burberry experience. The CX is absolutely awesome."

The Fifth Avenue store, which was refurbished with new systems last autumn, allows shoppers to tap smart mirrors in the changing room to request assistance or ask for different sized items. There is also the potential for the system to be tied into the retailer's follow-up marketing strategies, allowing customers to do their research in store, try the outfit and complete a purchase on the web at another time.

"The fitting room was the masterpiece of the tour but it was so much more than that," explained Bryant.

"Ralph Lauren has the luxury of high margins, but everything is RFID-labelled and enabled at the distribution point, which is labour intensive and costly. It gives you tracebility of product in terms of where it is in-store, it gives you the ability to recognise garmets as you walk into the fitting room, but more importantly it's around how that whole connected piece works."

Analysts view the whole connected piece as crucial if any of these customer-facing technologies, such as in-store beacons which prompt proximity marketing messages, are actually going to have commercial benefit later down the line.

That will need to be considered if the Ralph-style interactive technology becomes more mainstream.

"I can see it moving down and maybe hitting niche sectors and fast fashion," predicted Bryant.

"From my 30,000 ft view, the tech in terms of customer engagement absolutely works but putting it into Primark wouldn't work. We have to consider does the New Look experience look the same as Ralph Lauren and Burberry? There may be opportunities but I think the joining up of the experience is vitally important provided that they are absolutely clear what the infrastructure is behind it all to make it happen."

He acknowledged that RFID is on its way back into retail, adding it is "great for supply chain, it's great for tracking and now it's great for customer engagement".

"People in retail say 'I want an interactive fitting room', and that's fine, there are loads of them out there, but how you connect it up is the important bit. It's the same old story.

"I'm pleased 'omnichannel' as a term is disappearing and I came away from NRF thinking 'thank god we're actually starting to think of the customer journey instead'."

Bryant was talking to Essential Retail, ahead of K3's appearance at RBTE on 9-10 March 2016.

K3 is sponsoring the Retailer Lounge at the event, which will be held at London Olympia. The facility is for the exclusive use of retailers and aims to provide the ideal venue for them to relax, grab a free tea or coffee, take the weight off their feet, recharge their batteries and/or their smartphones.

Visitors can catch up with the K3 team to get their golden ticket envelope, which may contain a £50 gift card.

Click here to register for your free RBTE ticket.

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