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Retail Technology Guide

ByAmy Nichol Smith,
business.com writer
| Last Modified
Jun 05, 2017
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> Technology
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Owning and operating a retail shop seemed so simple once upon a time. A cash register, inventory, price tags and some cash in the drawer, and you were good to go. However, the pencil-and-paper method of receipts and payroll gave way to computerized cash registers with receipt rolls and automatic payroll with direct deposit. Technology continues to improve – sometimes at lightning-fast speed – and the way we do business has changed again.

If you're running a retail shop, you know the basics of what you need, but there's a lot you could be doing to help your business. The technological advances that are here now and coming soon can improve the way you do business, give your shop more visibility, improve your brand awareness and secure customer loyalty.

Rather than be intimidated by the changes, take ownership of the technology in your retail shop – and your website, mobile site and mobile app – and reap the rewards. Read this guide to see some of the trends that have become the norm and what's still on the horizon.

Point of sale and transactions

Those who are still using outdated cash registers should schedule an appointment with their equipment reseller now. Today there are several point-of-sale (POS) systems that are affordable, easy to use and handle everything from credit cards to mobile payments. Many of them even allow you to collect data on your customers or help you manage loyalty programs.

Editor's Note: Looking for a point of sale solution for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

 

For example, suppose that a new customer is ready to pay for their purchase. A salesperson can ask for an email address, and if the customer refuses? "You could get 15 percent off …" Now you have that customer in your sales funnel.

Most consumers don't mind promotional emails – as long as there's something in it for them. In a recent survey by MarketingSherpa, 91 percent of U.S. adults like getting those promo emails; 69 percent of those surveyed said they made a purchase after receiving an email from the company promoting a product.

The POS system

The iPad has become ubiquitous in society – toddlers to teens to executives are swiping, tapping and reading on handheld computers. You may have even used one recently to order or pay for a meal. Depending on your business, iPad POS systems might work for you – a customer can find a salesperson and check out quickly without having to stand in line (you'll see this at work in Apple's stores).

The new POS systems are all about getting you the data you need and allowing consumers to quickly pay and get on with their day. Being able to accept various forms of payments is essential to keeping customers coming back.

Self-service kiosks

You've seen self-service kiosks at grocery stores, big-box stores and other places. Big retail stores took a page out of the playbook gas stations have used, which was paying for fuel with a credit or debit card without having to walk inside, stand in line, pay and then pump gas.

Now you can do the same with groceries and toiletries. Not only do these kiosks take up less space, it's also a faster way to get in and get out with your items.

Social commerce

Finally, buy buttons are coming to social media – and it's a long time coming. When you consider how many people are browsing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, the numbers are staggering.

According to the latest count by statista, 81 percent of the U.S. population is using social media. Worldwide, it's up to 2.34 billion. The leader is still Facebook, which has nearly 2 billion users – in 2016, that number was 1.86 billion.

Instagram, which has 700 million monthly active users, has already introduced its "Shop Now" button, so if you see something you like, you click the button in the app and you're whisked away to the retailer's website.

The trend of shopping via social media is likely to lead to one-click purchases, which will make it easier for retailers to get those impulse buys. That's the way Facebook is going. Many people have already linked their smartphones with a credit card or their bank account, which is convenient, and this trend would simply capitalize on that.

Building consumer loyalty through user experience

Earning the business of a consumer can be a difficult and expensive endeavor. Retaining that customer costs less, and the repeat business is exactly what you're looking for. Using technology to help you garner and retain customer loyalty is easier than you think. Start with the obvious.

Email marketing

If you're able to collect data on your consumers, you can use this vital information to your benefit – and to your customer's. An email to thank a customer for their purchase is a nice gesture. Even better is an email sent one week later to offer that customer a discount on their next purchase. Whether they shop your online store or visit a brick-and-mortar location, your goal is to keep them coming back. Consumers don't mind emails because they're getting something out of it – a discount and great customer service, and they feel valued.

In-store Wi-Fi

If it seems like it's just a complimentary service you're providing customers, you need to look at the possibilities beyond just free Wi-Fi – especially as a retail shop. If you're operating a laundromat, free Wi-Fi is a good draw for customers who need your service anyway. The lure of internet access can, in your customers' minds, heighten the appeal of your laundromat above the others. About 50% of consumers spend more money at shops that offer free Wi-Fi, according to a report from Devicescape. Plus, more than 61% of consumers spend more time there.

However, free Wi-Fi does more than draw customers or keep them in your store longer. Wi-Fi is expected almost anywhere anyone goes now, so you're anticipating a customer's needs. You're also providing them a way to check on product reviews so they can make an informed decision.

The Internet of Things is also pushing to make it possible for retailers to interact with consumers through Wi-Fi to provide even more anticipatory needs. If you sell a variety of widgets, for example, and a consumer is looking at widgets designed for the petite, an app can help direct the customer when she is in the store to the bestselling widgets for the petite, and even show where they are on the map. Target is a good example of this with its Cartwheel app. You can see the items on sale on your store map within the app.

Now imagine that one step further: A customer who has your app installed is shopping in their preferred store. In the past, they've purchased green widgets in large and pink widgets in medium. As they're browsing, the app sends a notification as they're passing an end cap of the newest green widgets. The notification lets them know about the new item and offers a 10% discount if they buy it in the store that day. The possibilities of improved user experience and customer service are endless.

Mobile technology

There are at least three important pieces of mobile technology you should invest in right now. A mobile site seems to be a no-brainer for most businesses today, but do you know why it's important? In addition to a mobile site, increasingly, consumers expect retailers to offer a mobile app. Your customers are constantly using their phones – and not just for the Snapchat filters. Third, you need to be able to accept mobile payments. 

Your mobile site

Having a website alone isn't enough. Your website must also be coded properly for mobile sites. For one, customers expect it, and if your website doesn't load right on a mobile device, you're likely losing customers to frustration and a competitor who does it right. Additionally, it's important to have a well-designed mobile app so that the major search engines pick you up and put you high in search results. Google switches its algorithm all the time, and you must stay ahead of the curve.

A mobile app

Think of a mobile app as a step up from your mobile site. It can act as a shopping companion for your customers. It's also a data-collection device for you. As long as you're offering something through the app that customers can't get from just visiting your site, they're likely to download it. It can be a great way to incorporate a loyalty program (points system), show a customer how much they're saving by using the app and coupons you include or deliver news and information about the latest products you carry.

Accepting mobile payments

The numbers aren't looking great for Apple Pay, specifically. Although the number of people who've tried it is up, the number of people who regularly use it is going down. In June 2015, only 13.1 percent of people who have Apple Pay tried using it. In a year, that percentage increased to 23.8%, per a report by PYMNTS.com and InfoScout.

Mobile wallets are still expected to be the future of payments, and consumers are still willing to adopt it, as long as it's available wherever they go. One of the biggest issues of using mobile wallets is remembering to do so. As consumers, we're used to paying for purchases by pulling out our wallet and swiping a card. 

Should you consider augmented reality?

At its height, the "Pokemon Go" craze brought more people to shops, theme parks and even churches in an effort to capture the little pocket monsters. Some stores cashed in on the craze by setting "lures" within the app to entice customers to coffee shops and bakeries.

Another good example of augmented reality, or AR, is Shiseido's makeup mirror. The device takes a headshot of a customer and then lets you or a makeup artist/salesperson apply the latest products virtually so you can see what shade looks best on your cheeks, lips or eyes – all without having to apply it, remove it and then apply a new shade.

A consumer using your app, while they are in your store, is a version of AR – scanning a bar code to check the nutrition or product reviews is huge right now. Retail is using AR to help consumers shop more easily, choose the right products or even just make shopping a more entertaining experience.

Video marketing

We've already noted how important the Google algorithm is to any business that's online. Businesses with good mobile sites are ranking higher in search results, as are those that have video on their websites. Consumers love video – YouTube is one of the most popular social media sites around with about 1 billion active users every month.   

The power of live Facebook videos

When Facebook launched videos, there may have been some scoffing – how could Facebook take down video giant YouTube? And then there was the Chewbacca mask mom (remember the woman who laughed so gleefully with the Chewbacca mask on?) and it exploded – that video had the most views of any Facebook Live video at the time. That video raked in about 50 million views in one day.

According to Recode, in January 2016, 500 million people watch Facebook videos daily. There's a piece of that pie for retail, if you do it right.

First, there's the Facebook algorithm. If you use Facebook Live, the social media platform picks that up and helps rocket you to the top of people's news feeds. You can use the medium as a way to interact with your customers – offer a Q&A session with a designer or the CEO of the company. Invite a guest who understands widgets better than anyone else and let the questions and answers flow!

Facebook Live is a great way for you to let your consumers see who you are as a company – it helps them understand your "why," and it goes beyond promoting a specific product. You're promoting your brand and creating even more loyalty.

Delivery technology

If there's anything anyone knows about today's consumer, it's that they want whatever it is they've just purchased. Technology seems to have melded all the generations into a sort of conglomerate "Instant Gratification" generation. The demand for drone technology is increasing – mostly because of consumer demand. However, it's not quite as far along as retail or consumers want it to be yet.

Drones

Right now, drones make sense for distributors and retailers because they're a great way to easily manage inventory. You can use this technology to see what's in stock without having to grab a ladder. They're a good addition for aerial photography, too. Who says you can't get creative and use a drone in a store? You could (carefully) fly a drone with a basket over to a customer who's carrying too many items to offer them a hand with their stuff as they make their way to a cashier.

As far as using drones for delivery, though, that's still on the horizon. Package delivery company DHL is doing it in Germany, and Alibaba is testing drone delivery in China. Beyond that, though, drone delivery hasn't quite gotten the green light nationally or globally. Once it does, though, consumers could potentially buy a widget from your company and have it delivered to their door within hours. 

Same-day delivery

In the meantime, it might be a good idea to consider same-day delivery. There are plenty of companies offering their services as delivery people. Uber is the biggest name in the game, and once the company expanded to food, it became huge everywhere. Also in on the game is Postmates, which offers same-day delivery (sometimes within an hour) on all sorts of goods.

Same-day delivery can be expensive, and may not be possible for all retailers. A compromise to ensure you still get sales is to offer free shipping. Many retailers have added this option for those who spend $35, $50 or more to recoup shipping costs the company is eating.

Data collection

You're likely already using some way to collect data. Consumer's email addresses are a great way to start, so you can push sales, discounts and new products their way. There are other types of data you could be collecting and many ways for you to use that data to get a customer back into your physical store or to your website and get them purchasing.

Types of data

Contact information is the obvious start. An email address is the best. If you still send out physical mail, get a customer's physical address (which is easy if they've ordered online from you). Phone numbers are less useful for marketing but are good to have in case there's an issue with an order. If you can, get a customer's birthday, too.

Don't overlook data you can collect with cookies to help you know when a customer is shopping for a particular product. This data can also be used to help you seal a deal that wasn't a sure thing before.

How to use it

If a customer has abandoned their shopping cart, you can remind them of their desire to purchase those items in an email later. Many retailers capitalize on this information by presenting those items to the same consumer in the form of an online ad on a social media site or through an email to let that consumer know that stock is running low (or that the price has dropped).

You can increase sales and loyalty with a simple birthday greeting: Their favorite store is saying Happy Birthday, and they get to come into the store to get a free accessory! The odds are in your favor that while the customer is there to pick up their freebie, they might treat themselves with a new widget.

Knowing what a customer shops for and buys is a great way to create targeted email campaigns for them. If a consumer only ever buys petite widgets, your emails can show them just the petite ones – and maybe a few of the regular-size widgets for gift ideas.

Another great idea is to use the data you've collected to identify your best customers. Offer them something exclusive as a way of saying thanks for being a great customer – VIP treatment and appreciation goes a long way toward engendering customer loyalty.

The other stuff

As futuristic and awesome as the Internet of Things and mobile apps are, you can't forget to invest in the staples of all retailers. In order to manage all of your data, you'll need customer relationship management (CRM) software. And no business can effectively and efficiently do business without good accounting software and online payroll services, which our sister site Top Ten Reviews evaluates, tests and reviews. 

Adopting technology for your retail store, both online and offline, is necessary for you to stay ahead in the game. Competition for sales has expanded to include big-box stores and giant eCommerce retailers. Use the tools that are readily available in creative, new ways, and you're likely to set yourself apart from those who aren't adopting new technology.

Image from  REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock

Amy Nichol Smith
Amy Nichol Smith
See Amy Nichol Smith's Profile
Amy Nichol Smith is a freelance writer who covers business, technology, food, sports, pop culture, and much more. She's a former features reporter and editor for The Monitor newspaper and has a love of football and video games.
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