It’s all about the experience …

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By Richard Morgans, CMO, ONVU Technologies

As consumers we have voted with our feet and chosen experiences that pamper us, that treat us as individuals and make us feel special. A Google Trends search for ‘immersive theatre’ shows that the term is currently at its most popular, on a steady upward trend. Whilst ‘personal shopper’ peaked last year, the same impetus is shown in the rising trend of searches for ‘shopping app’ – demonstrating that consumers are firmly wedded to digital as the way to manage their experiences.

The idea of being part of a special, in-the-moment experience is captivating, and across many industries, like retail, the restaurant trade, casinos, and even in healthcare, banking, shipping and logistics, and in hospitality, there are parallels in how businesses are reacting to this wish fulfilment.

There’s only one way to effectively and efficiently customise an experience now, and that is through digital means, even in those industries where the literal personal touch is still needed. Imagine the most personal, high class experiences possible, perhaps the finest restaurants or a spa: Whatever your wish is, it is made possible because there is a carefully maintained business process, carried out by expertly trained staff. Usually, a large number of staff in a luxury establishment. More mass market experiences are a lot less costly for the consumer, and are generally marked by fewer staff, more self-service, and a restriction of choice between offerings ‘off the peg’.

Clearly, not every business can offer the ‘Harrods’ feeling, even if many more aim higher than the ‘pile ‘em high’ ethos at the lower end. Smart video solutions allied with analytics are one way that major UK retail chains aim to be more responsive to their customer’s needs. Like any tool in the business technology armoury, smart video is a force multiplier, allowing the same number of staff to see more, understand more, and do more. One major British multinational clothing, footwear and home products retailer uses smart video to create heatmaps of customer dwell time and to map how they move through the store, where they direct their gaze, and what merchandise is not given the attention it needs.

In this way smart video solutions are one part of the solution to making more experiences personal to the consumer, without needing to take on a veritable army of extra staff or sending them to finishing school! Rather than making a direct intervention, data on personal journeys can be used to improve the journey for all shoppers, giving them the best experience.

More advanced analytics and artificial intelligence can monitor physical expressions and body language, identifying where consumers direct their gaze, delivering insights to in-store staff, marketing and rewards programmes, or back into visual merchandising, displays, store layout, or even to product design.

In the way that web analytics has transformed the online shopping experience, enabling a close customisation to the exact needs and desires of the customer, the platform that enables the physical space to compete is smart video, which extends the business insight into every space, to track and analyse and suggest improvements to the way the business operates.

Smart video is ‘smart’ when video hardware provides the feed to a processor, able to run algorithms which can understand what they ‘see’ and make decisions on it. So just like a person does, smart systems can be trained to see activity, people, or things – and learn from their behaviours.

Such systems, like EPOS or other mature technologies, ‘augment the humans’ in the environment, or can feed data to management dashboards or reports to understand how every aspect of the environment is operating and providing value.

There are business, cultural, and technological elements to any process that uses smart video to improve the experience of customers in a physical environment.

It’s of primary concern to begin with a challenge to solve, rather than a desire to just lead on technology. Whilst smart video can be a multi-departmental resource – used for merchandising, loss prevention, stock control, customer care, business process optimisation, and compliance and public safety – it needs to prove itself in a limited and measurable way in order to reveal the benefits that other departments might then understand could incorporate.

Culturally, staff must be on-board with the technology and how it will be used. Video might mean ‘surveillance’ to some, even where the feed is not watched live, or recorded (being used as a sensor to count or track rather than observe, for example). It’s important that smart video’s uses are clearly explained and defined, as a means of providing services that will provide the best experience to their customers.

Technologically, any solutions that are able to integrate into the systems already in place will stand a better chance of creating value and being taken on by the business at large. IP technology, and anything hosted in the cloud might be an easier integration for organisations with legacy cabling and connectivity.

Experience is, therefore, not only the desired total offering to the customer, it’s something that impacts materially on staff and organisations. Only the right, human-centred approaches, treating all the people parts of the process with respect will result in the best total experience. Rather than looking to implement a type of technology to solve a problem, it might be more helpful in the long term to consider ‘empathy-led’ projects, technology implementations, and results. When the organisation shows that it understands and cares, that it empathises, the experience cannot fail to be positive.