Online Fills Customer Review Gap In Stores

E-tailers are moving offline in a bid to better engage customers across the buying journey, but a key online component lacking in physical stores today needs to be addressed so consumers have the same experience in-store as they do online.

There is currently still little access to product reviews and visualisation in physical retail stores, according to Andrew Tan, Singapore managing director, JOS, a Hong Kong-based IT systems integrator and tech consultancy.

Formerly called Jardine OneSolution, the vendor’s products and services include artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and big data, for sectors such as retail, manufacturing, and financial services. Apart from Hong Kong, it also has operations in Singapore, Malaysia, and China, hiring some 2,300 employees across the four markets.

Tan urged traditional retailers to think about omnichannel customer experience and competition against their online counterparts. Elaborating on his own online shopping experience, he noted that he was able to seek out feedback from online forums and evaluate his purchase options. This, however, was not commonly available in stores, he said in an interview with DTCDaily.

He added that while in-store assistants could provide some guidance, this paled in comparison to comments from fellow shoppers.

Mark Lunt, group managing director, JOS, noted that physical retail stores also were limited by the number of product models and range they could display.

Andrew Tan, Singapore MD, JOS

Tan said: “What’s lacking today in physical stores is that you still can’t see reviews of products or visualise products [that aren’t displayed on shelves]. Customers now expect the same kind of experience online as they do offline in order to make informed buying decisions. That’s the one gap we’re seeing in physical stores today. There needs to be a true omnichannel experience.”

To plug such holes, he suggested that stores offered online kiosks that could provide customers with additional information such as product features and reviews.

Some online retailers, too, that lacked the physical shopping experience such as the option to try on products, also had adopted augmented reality tools to fill the gap, he noted.

Lunt said such integration between the offline and online experience would continue to grow, offering customers more options such as click-and-collect where they could order online and collect their purchases in-store.

Tapping data to lure back online customers

And with retail markets such as Hong Kong struggling with falling foot traffic, stores will have to give consumers more reasons to step into physical stores and make purchases.

Lunt noted that a general slowdown in the retail sector, as well as online retail (especially products that did not require a touch-and-feel experience) has had an impact on brick-and-mortar stores.

This has prompted mall operators and merchants to better understand customers and their buying patterns, he said, such as when the mall was busiest and assess what they could do to encourage more foot traffic during low peak hours. They also were keen to identify areas where there were high foot traffic, but low purchase or conversion, so they could address the gap.

Vendors such as JOS offer tools that tapped visual data from CCTVs and data from mobile devices to gauge the approximate age and gender of consumers. This could provide some insights on who were visiting the mall or store and when they were doing so, he explained, adding that the information then would be presented as heat maps.

Stressing that the data collected was anonymised, he said JOS provided the tools that enabled mall operators to store and analyse the data. “So what they do with the data is their decision,” he noted. “If you know [the customer’s] age, gender, and ethnicity…there’s a lot [of service personalisation] you can do [already] with that information.”

Mark Lunt, group MD, JOS

Ultimately, Tan said, retailers would need to be able to digest the data – for instance, by applying AI – so they could gain meaningful insights and drive more revenue through higher lead generation and enticing consumers to shop more.

Lunt added that brands should start marrying different datasets, such as transaction and profile data, to create potential association, where some products often were purchased together. For example, consumers who purchased a new mobile phone typically would be looking to buy a new case for that phone.

By analysing data at the basket level to identify such connections, retailers could improve their product placement and displays in-store as well as recommendations online, he said.

Apart from looking at their own data, businesses also could look at broader datasets such as weather as well as macroeconomic and political news to establish a deeper understanding of consumer behaviours, he noted. Customers, for instance, would likely purchase more soup during cold weather so retailers should ensure they had sufficient stock of soup options.

Lunt said: “So there’s all this tying of data and pattern recognition. One of the big topics now is using data in a predictive way to forecast what’s likely to happen in the next month or year to manage inventory and stock levels.”