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Customer Care Plays a Crucial Role in Retail Holiday Sales and 2014 Consumer Engagement

Guest Blog by Stacy Adams

This year, the retail holiday season is shorter than normal. Six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas embeds a sense of urgency in retailers to recruit and retain customers in an already competitive space. Brands must differentiate themselves from competitors to meet near-term sales goals, while also laying a foundation for long-term relationships with consumers that extend beyond the holiday season. While an admittedly crowded environment, retailers can use the holiday sales and return seasons to engage consumers, expand their mobile repertoire beyond coupons, and win customers they can nurture into brand advocates in 2014.

Resources are at Brands’ Fingertips

Companies already know consumers are willing to connect with them on their mobile devices. In fact, a survey conducted by Millward Brown Digital on behalf of mBlox earlier this year found that 73 percent of respondents reported they have received a text or push message from a company, and 68 percent found it valuable. Further, 80 percent of consumers are willing to share information with brands to receive a text message.

The data shows that consumers are more accepting of text messages than ever before, and the opportunity is huge for retailers to interact with consumers over mobile channels. Plus, the infrastructure, technology  and reach of mobile devices is improving every day as more and more consumers have their devices nearby at all times. This confluence of consumer interest and technology adoption provides brands an opportunity to establish meaningful, lasting and personal relationships with consumers.

It’s not Just About the Coupon

Coupons are an inherent part of a brand’s mobile engagement strategy.  Our survey found 59 percent of respondents prefer to receive SMS or push messages with an offer or a coupon when receiving communication from companies. However, couponing is only the beginning and should not be the cornerstone of a brand’s mobile strategy. Best-in-class mobile interaction is made up of more than just your standard “BOGO,” savvy brands engage in customer care, ensuring they aren’t just bombarding their customer base with coupons.

The challenge many brands face is getting beyond the couponing mentality. Care goes beyond cost savings to the broader experience. For example, instead of a coupon, retailers may provide better shipping and returns options for opt-in text recipients, or an SMS message can remind opt-in consumers about a soon-to-expire rewards offer. This shift to a care-centered model isn’t just a short-term trend but is primed to become the norm in 2014.

Care is Proven to Work

Creating the best customer experience is retail 101. Mobile customer care takes those principles to the mobile device, creating a personal and meaningful experience for potential and existing customers. Brands will share customized information with engaged consumers, appealing to an individual’s specific interests. This engagement ensures the consumer experience will continue long after they walk out of the store or close a browser. For example, retailers can use mobile to invite consumers to VIP events at local stores, driving brand affinity and foot-traffic, or retailers can solicit feedback in the form of a customer survey that can improve the consumer’s future experience with the brand. Not only do these exchanges nurture the consumer relationships in real-time, they provide valuable information brands can use to deepen and strengthen their customer relationships beyond a one-time purchase.

Mobile Care Starts Now

Customer care is a well-established need in retail, especially as brands seek to gain wallet-share in a competitive retail environment. In order to be successful, care practices must extend across all channels (in-person, online and mobile, among others) to create a complete, personal and unique experience for shoppers. The mobile channel is an essential next step for retailers to engage customers, and create a well-rounded and valuable shopping experience. These practices enable brands to evolve shoppers from one-time customers to brand advocates. The opportunity is there, and the time is now for brands to use care-centered programming in a relatively untapped channel.

Stacy Adams is vice president of marketing for mBlox.

3 ways business credit impacts your retail company

Guest Blog by Levi King

Between managing inventory, staff, and pricing, you can be busy—really busy. Paying attention to business credit may be the last thing on your mind, but credit really is the lifeblood of any business. You can’t afford to take a wait-and-see approach.

Unlike personal credit, your customers, suppliers, vendors, and lenders can (and do!) make decisions based on your business credit without your permission or your knowledge. You may not know it, but your unhealthy credit may be holding you back.

By exploring the different ways business credit impacts your company, you can take charge of your credit health to grow and protect everything you’ve worked so hard to build.

1. Vendor and supplier relationships

When reviewing credit worthiness, vendors and suppliers will pull a retailer’s credit and look at payment histories. This is the most common use of business credit, and likely the most overlooked.

Good credit ensures you get the products, supplies and services you need with the best possible terms, giving you more time and money to dedicate to other parts of your business. These lines of credit are essential and help free up valuable cash flow. Companies with healthy credit can usually negotiate net 30-, 60-, or even 90-day terms with vendors and suppliers, as well as secure higher credit limits.

Even if you know where your business credit stands today and are comfortable with your credit terms, it’s vital to regularly monitor your credit to avoid any surprises in the future.

As noted by the Small Business Administration (SBA), the credit score of about one in three businesses declines over just a three-month period. When it happens, it happens fast! Vendors and suppliers may regularly check to see where you stand, and if your credit deteriorates, they can stop or adjust your terms.

2. Traditional lenders

Banks and credit unions provide most of the loans, credit lines and credit cards that business owners usually think of first when it comes to business credit. And for good reason: these lenders can keep the cash flowing when you need it most.

According to the SBA, insufficient or delayed financing is the second most common reason for business failure. Protect yourself by understanding where your credit stands and the amount of funding you can qualify for—before you need it.

And since nearly all conventional and SBA loan applications are now evaluated manually instead of automated underwriting, managing both your personal and business credit profiles is more important than ever.  Lenders are looking at both, with 47 percent saying business credit scores are an important underwriting factor (Federal Reserve of Atlanta survey, March, 2009).

The same holds true for business credit cards. Most lenders use a combination of personal and business credit scores to determine amounts and terms. For businesses with a poor credit rating, interest rates may double.

3. Merchant processor discount rates

When you sign up to accept credit card payments, the acquiring bank transfers cash to you and assumes the risk that there will be a charge back. They see this as a loan, so when you apply for merchant processing, your credit health will be evaluated.

Your good or poor credit profile impacts the discount rate you pay for every transaction—anywhere from 1 ½ percent to 3 percent. For businesses with small profit margins, changes to this rate can make a big difference to the bottom line.

Make your credit work hard for you

By taking a proactive approach to your business credit health, you can ensure that lenders and suppliers view you in the best light, saving you money and helping you avoid business disruptions. You work hard to run a successful business—make sure your credit  works hard for you.

Levi King is the CEO and founder of Creditera

Avoiding Disappointment This Holiday Season

Guest Blog by Tamara Saucier

The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts holiday sales will increase 3.9% this year. Last year the average holiday shopper spent $423 during Thanksgiving weekend alone. The holiday shopping season seems to start earlier and end later every year. And each year seems to bring new legendary tales of “must-have” items such as the Dancing Mickey Mouse, Zhu Zhu Pets, and Cabbage Patch Dolls.

In recent years, retailers have extended their focus on customers, attempting to bring the customer experience to new levels. But despite these efforts, as a consumer we more often than not come up disappointed. How many times has your holiday included one of these scenarios?

  1. “Sorry, the store was out but here’s a gift card so you can get it later.”
  2. An envelope with a cut out picture from a catalog and note saying, “This is supposed to arrive next week.”
  3. A substitute of what you really wanted with the gift giver stating, “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it available.”

Retailers are in an extremely competitive environment and must be able to deliver on the year-round promises they are making to their customers. Recognizing that planning for the holiday sales season is part science and part art, what can a diligent merchant do? Here are a few tips for avoiding customer disappointment.

Know your sales trends – and be able to respond effectively

This means understanding your customers’ tastes and buying patterns, and mirroring that on the back-end of the business to ensure products can be delivered according to the needs and wants of the consumer. If you’re offering customized or tailored goods, such as engraved sporting equipment, be prepared. One way is to engrave or customize goods at the factory, instead of doing it domestically. Even better, if you can create customized sneakers in the factory and ship direct to consumer, you’re reducing time and costs while delivering a great customer experience.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

A broken promise is more harmful than a promise not given. Know the limits of your customers but more importantly, know the limits of your supply chain. Do you have the ability to ship direct to consumers in 3 days? Is same day delivery possible given the existing logistics architecture? Do you have inventory visibility across all channels of the business.

If retailers can’t answer these questions with certainty, then delivery offers and promises need to be scaled back. There’s nothing worse than being the guilty culprit responsible for a disappointed child on Christmas morning. “The delivery will be here tomorrow” just doesn’t cut it. E-commerce companies like Amazon carved out their niche by “delivering” the goods. They invest heavily in their supply chains to ensure they have the resources and inventory visibility to deliver on their promises to customers. The result? 129 million consumers shopped online last year on Cyber Monday.

Enable full assortment availability to your customer

Consumers expect and demand options. Millennials in particular demand goods that are new, shiny and different. The “wow” factor is huge. Capturing this audience requires smart assortment offerings with options. This means being able to deliver what they want, when and where they want it. Consumers will remember it if you can provide real availability with confidence. But again, this requires inventory visibility.

Something we’ve all learned the hard way: There’s nothing worse than unmet expectations during the holiday season. Retailers who get it right and deliver on promises will be heavily rewarded this holiday season.

 Tamara Saucier is VP Industry – Retail Solutions with GT Nexus

To Touch or To Gesture – The On-going Battle Between Two Competing Technologies

Guest Blog by Lenny Kleyman

If you had to choose sides, would you support gesture-based or touch-based user experiences as the best practice for interactive digital signage at retail?

This isn’t the first time we as a digital society have been asked to choose sides. We’ve decided the fate of VHS and Betamax, Blu-rays and HD-DVDs, Facebook and Myspace, just to name a few. And now we have been asked to choose once more, to gesture or to touch.

From a technical standpoint, both technologies are now feasible on large and small experiences alike; however, they are not interchangeable by any means which makes the decision that much harder.  At Infusion we’ve implemented both.  Here are decision factors.

TOUCHSCREEN

Let’s talk touchscreens first. The best type of technology will depend on three factors in order of priority:

1. The size of the touch area.

2. The number of simultaneous touch-points.

3. The environment it’s being installed into.

Touch has a lot going for it out of the gate:

  • There is a higher adoption rate due to familiarity of the technology.
  • It’s more intuitive.
  • Touch engages users in closer proximity to the device.
  • There’s greater accuracy and quicker selection.
  • It has a lower risk in an uncontrollable environment.
  • Touch leaves less room for interactive error.
  • It behaves similarly to a mouse-click relative to UX design principles.

Yet touch also has a variety of cons…

  • It can be mildly unsanitary for public consumption.
  • It does not allow for skeletal/gesture recognition.
  • The screen size will limit the number of touch-points as well as the environment where it can function.
  • The price for hardware is high.
  • There’s a lack of flexibility for re-application or screen size changes.
  • There are involved maintenance and replacement factors.

GESTURAL

In regards to gestural technologies, most hardware components in Microsoft’s popular Kinect, Mesa Imaging, Panasonic and HD webcams require some form of middleware or SDK to interpret movements as gestures. When talking gesture there are several priority factors to consider right out of the gate such as the environment it’s being installed into, the expected number of simultaneous users, and the complexity of the gestures and gesture types required to create a great experience.

It has many pros:

  • Gesture allows for skeletal/gesture recognition.
  • It provides more immersive interactive experiences between users and applications.
  • Gesture may be considered more “fun” to use.
  • It can track multiple users.
  • It’s flexible to any screen size.
  • You get enhanced ease of installation and integration.
  • There is easier maintenance and replacement.

On the other hand, gesture technologies…

  • Have a small, but real, learning curve for the general population.
  • Require users to stand at a specific minimum range in order to be picked up by a sensor.
  • Are not as precise in user experience navigation and selection.
  • Run the risk of interrupted user experiences because of constant sidewalk traffic when deployed in metropolitan areas.
  • Are impacted by environmental conditions such as rain, direct sunlight, and clothing, which can affect accurate tracking of users.
  • Require more development and testing.

In the end it all boils down to two overarching questions:

  • What is the intended user experience, and
  • What is the environment surrounding the experience?

TOUCH interaction provides overall greater accuracy in selection and is projected to have a higher user adoption rate due to the general public’s familiarity with the technology. Application development and UX design tend to stay in scope, though hardware cost and installation are typically much higher than the gesture solutions.

GESTURE interaction may afford greater opportunity for cutting-edge interactive elements and experience design, but keep in mind application and UX development will require additional time for design and testing up front. However, long-term hardware cost, installation, and maintenance will be significantly lower.

So which reigns supreme?

As you may have figured out by now the answer is not that simple. I don’t believe there will ever be a clear winner between gesture and touchscreen technologies because each has its place in today’s swiping, waving, and flicking society. We have evolved from punch cards to keyboards, from the mouse to touchpads, and now to touchscreens and gestures. The true deciding factor is the type of experience you intend the user to have.

But one thing’s for sure, if brands want to stay ahead of the curve, they should plan for beautiful and intuitive applications utilizing either gesture or touch. Simply looping video and static images is right up there with Betamax, HD-DVD, and myspace, all now relics of the past.

Lenny Kleyman is an Innovation Producer at Infusion