Shoptalk 2023: Omnichannel Morphs into Unified Commerce and the Store Associate Takes Center Stage

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Today’s market requires the flexibility to reach customers across touchpoints and channels whether through mobile, in-person, or in-store. It’s a critical concept for retailers, that has expanded to include how to create a unified experience for both customers and employees across all these channels.

This was never more evident than at Shoptalk 2023. The annual March event is one of the retail industry’s premier conferences, bringing together thousands to learn about the latest technologies, trends, and business models driving what consumers discover, shop for, and buy—everything ranging from apparel and electronics to beauty and grocery.

It comes down to people and data. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Unified commerce

We’ve been talking about omnichannel for a long time, but in order to provide an exceptional customer experience and increase ROI, a more connected version of omnichannel— unified commerce— is becoming critical to retailer success. What’s the difference?

Omnichannel retailing usually consists of siloed, unconnected systems and channels, whereas unified commerce connects all back-end systems with customer-facing channels, so critical data passes between the systems in real-time. It also creates a unified view of shopper interactions and products across all channels: product descriptions, metadata, images & videos, pricing, delivery options and costs, stock availability, payment options, customer communications, recommendations, and more.

By harmonizing all channels, retailers can deliver an integrated, more frictionless experience. A good example is having the same promotions available in person, online, or through a mobile app, so a customer doesn’t have to double-check to make sure they are getting the best deal before checking out.

“It’s about the convergence of the physical and digital store,” said Steve Faith, Hitachi Solutions Director of Retail Business Development. The lines are blurring. People expect online shopping to become more experiential and in-store shopping to become more digitized. Ulta Beauty is a good example. During a Shoptalk keynote, Ulta CEO Dave Kimbell said that when an in-store shopper starts buying online, they become 2.5x more valuable to the company.

For example, the beauty giant allows online shoppers to virtually try on makeup and then bring those digital touchpoints to the store so customers can get the same treatment regardless of the channel. One way is through a virtual beauty assistant of sorts, where consumers can take a photo with their phone and see how a lipstick shade will look prior to purchase. It’s akin to being in the store without the messy testers. Customers can also schedule appointments at the nearest location, and see their purchase history across all channels.

Deb Marotta, Hitachi Solutions Vice President of Retail and CPG Industries, added, “ It’s about picking up the entire customer journey and keeping it connected. For example, how do you make it easy for customers to go from doing product research to engaging virtually to get answers to specific product questions?”

Empowering the store associate

A connected commerce solution also goes a long way toward empowering store associates— another recurring theme from Shoptalk. “Many companies are investing in technologies & redefining roles by having store associates support both digital sales and social media content – it not only improves overall customer engagement but helps retain employees,” said Barbara Powell, Hitachi Solutions director of sales business development.

Customers get frustrated when frontline employees can’t meet their needs, and don’t add value to the shopping experience. They want someone who can recommend similar or alternative products and solutions, answer basic questions, and check stock availability at other store locations, for example.

Likewise, frontline employees get frustrated by the lack of tools that could empower them to be successful and reduce customer frustration. To do so, they need the right information and context related to customers, products, and trends. And they need cohesive tools and automated processes that allow them to have that information at their fingertips while on the store floor or while chatting online with customers.

Modern, mobile solutions can help frontline workers answer questions in real-time like:

  • Is there inventory available at a nearby store?
  • Can you accept alternate forms of payment?
  • How easy is it to return items?

Providing employees with access to data like this at their fingertips empowers them to satisfy customers and take pride in the work they are doing. For example, Kohl’s made an investment in their store associate tools and saw a 40% increase in retention after giving their people tools to make their jobs easier.

Microsoft is now providing these tools in Store Operations Assist, a mobile low-code solution that equips store associates so they can better serve and engage customers, and be more productive at the same time.

It uses a single pane of glass to access all operational day-to-day activities — from curbside fulfillment to customer service scenarios in the physical store. Store leadership can also better manage operational activities with dashboard-based analytics and insights.​

And also worth noting…

While not core themes at Shoptalk, a few other topics stood out:

  • Sustainability continues to be top-of-mind and can take many forms, everything from minimizing environmental waste to being mindful of the materials, transportation, and packaging used to produce goods. Brands need to consider how to achieve profitability while furthering goals— sustainability is important, but you don’t have to lose money while doing it.
  • The previous year at Shoptalk 2022, the metaverse was the new shiny object, but in 2023, it was relegated to the background. At some point, the metaverse may become imperative to retail success, but for now, its immediate and incremental value remains to be understood.
  • Executives are treating the latest tech craze— AI, large language models, and OpenAI’s ChatGPT with tempered expectations. As the discussion surrounding AI grows in volume and complexity, retailers are trying to find the payoff and the tangible use cases that will boost business performance.

We’ve got the experts

Whether you are interested in unified commerce, empowering your store associates, or driving efficiency, we have the retail cloud experts to help you get there.

Hitachi Solutions is a premier partner working with the Microsoft Cloud for Retail. We have the know-how to bring retail solutions to life by removing data silos, reducing data duplication, and facilitating customer insights to deliver a complete experience.

Companies and leading brands are moving fast to find new and innovative strategies to stay ahead of the curve. With our unique expertise and ability to innovate, Hitachi Solutions can help you do the same. If you’re interested in deeper insights into any of the trends discussed here, we’d love to talk with you. Reach out to us today, or check out this whitepaper on how to kickstart a comprehensive customer service and experience strategy.