Dawsons Music, founded in 1898 in Warrington, claims to be the oldest retailer of musical instruments in England. These days, however, it is using one of the newest technologies available to sell its goods on the internet: a virtual link between its sales staff and online shoppers.
Staff wearing a pair of smart glasses, equipped with a camera, can advise online shoppers about the specifics of a purchase. The staff can hear, but not see, the customers.
The company behind the technology, GoInStore, is 18 months old and its products have been “live” for about three or four months. “I was visiting a high-end handbag store and there were four staff standing around,” says Andre Hordagoda, GoInStore’s co-founder.
“I thought, why don’t we take some of that capacity in store and present it on the web? Most retailers consider the salesperson to be their most valuable asset — they live and breathe the product and they are the best at helping someone to consider whether it is the right item to purchase,” he adds.
Once they pick out something they are interested in buying, online shoppers can click on a tab that connects them to a store. The system pairs the shopper with the most suitable person on the sales floor, based on the shopper’s behaviour, what they want to buy and where their location is.
How have sales staff responded? “Some people take to it quicker than others,” says Mr Hordagoda. “But when they start to get results, you get a mind shift. Everyone likes the glasses, that is a novelty element, but we can do it over a mobile phone too.”
Mr Hordagoda, who has worked in retail for the past decade, says that making a personal connection with a customer just at the right point can help secure an online sale. Typically, online customers only make a purchase as one-tenth as frequently as in-store visitors, a statistic that is known as the “conversion” rate — which literally means the number of online visitors who actually buy something.
“I cannot tell you exactly how well it is going, but let us say that the retailers who have started using it are now taking on more staff just to use the technology,” Mr Hordagoda says.
While most people shopping for groceries online end up making a purchase, achieving sales in other areas of ecommerce is more difficult. Traditionally, customers prefer to feel and try their clothes and shoes before buying. People looking for a niche item, or anything requiring specialist advice, such as a musical instrument or a car, also tend to go to a physical store.
But retailers are increasingly using technology to try to reassure customers about their possible purchases and personalise their buying experience, in the hope of making more sales.
One of Mr Hordagoda’s other clients is Amari, the luxury car dealer, which he says is starting to sell cars over its website.
“There is now a recognition that good customer service, which has traditionally been seen as an operational cost that needs to be minimised, can actually drive growth,” says Matt Prebble, the managing director of UK retail at Accenture. “Our surveys consistently show that where there is good service it drives customers to be more loyal.
“New technologies are coming in, such as video chat. They can work well, these high-touch, personalised interactions, in areas such as fashion, where you value the advice of a concierge for those moments of truth when you are trying to make a purchase,” he adds. “That can be dramatic. When the items are in the basket, you can, with the right experience and at the right point in the customer journey, double your conversion rate.”
The ubiquity of mobile phones is also offering opportunities for retailers to improve their customer service. Instead of holding the line for an assistant at a call-centre, customers can access help menus on their smartphones. Location services allow retailers to track customers into a store and to already know what help they might need.
“For example, if you know a customer purchased something last week, and they are coming back to the store, you can guess what sort of help they might need,” says Mr Prebble. “If you see someone coming in after buying a printer you will know that the most common reason for that is that they need printer ink.”
But such technologies are meaningless unless the basics of customer service are already working, he adds. “The reality is that most companies and retailers struggle to resolve customer issues with a single contact.
“Most are failing to deliver customer service, if you look at the number of contacts it requires to resolve an issue. Opening up more channels and engaging with customers is good, but only once you have got the core channel right.”