Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Take The Tech Lead — Your Customers Will Follow

A recent news release reaffirms what smart retailers already know: Consumers opt in eagerly for tech-driven customer loyalty programs. According to TOP Food & Drug, a grocery store chain in Washington state, more than 60% of its customers signed up for an RFID-based loyalty program in its first 100 days.

The TOP Connection program uses an RFID reader mounted on top of payment terminals and RFID-enabled key tags or adhesive tags for cell phones that contain unique customer identifiers. The customer relationship program uses the RFID technology to offer targeted marketing promotions and new-item notifications, and includes a 7-day price guarantee and the ability to create online shopping lists. The company believes the program, which also has increased per-trip spending, could “serve as a model for other retailers seeking to move beyond the traditional way of discount pricing to improve customer retention and store profitability."

Tech-driven customer loyalty programs, such as the ones I profiled in a recent story, can improve sales and boost overall retail operations. Steps like sharing real-time POS data with suppliers will strengthen supply-chain efficiencies and also create opportunities for personalized marketing. (Gary Hawkins, of Syracuse’s Green Hills Market, is among the leaders in embracing this methodology. Read more about his approach here.)

So, take a look at your own operations and at the tech options available. The more technology alternatives you offer, it seems, the more your customers will respond.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Without A Queue

Here’s a tech idea that falls into the “Why didn’t I think of that?” category. QLess, a start-up company, has developed a technology to free customers from waiting in line at a designated location. For me — and probably others with young, restless kids — restaurants and Walt Disney World immediately come to mind as essential places for this application. And imagine how much more efficient your store could be during the holiday season.

QLess enables customers to call or text their request to be put on a waiting list. The list is seeded with an “initial wait” time, which can be configured appropriately for each vendor. As the list advances, QLess software uses a variety of statistical analysis techniques to “learn” and accurately forecast future wait times. The customer doesn’t need to show up until they receive a text or phone call from the merchant.

QLess is a hosted service that runs on a QLess Web server. Retailers would need only a computer with a Web browser — and customers with cellphones, of course. There is no hardware to buy. QLess provides companies with a local (to the company) or a custom toll-free number that customers would use to interact with the system. You pay a per-customer charge to QLess, and they handle the phone bills.

Sounds simple, right? So, how many days are left between now and the holiday shopping season?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Taking Stock Of Amazon

Amazon’s stock these days is the retail industry’s Rorschach test. What you see depends on what you want to see.

The e-commerce retailer’s stock closed at $72.81 Tuesday, more than double its showing of just four months ago ($35.02 on November 19, 2008). That’s where the facts end and the interpretations begin.

Some see Amazon as a smart online retailer and master of supply-chain efficiency benefiting from consumer interest in its new wireless reading device, the Kindle 2. In fact, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos used the Kindle 2 to highlight the company’s effective delivery model in a New York Times article. “E-books should be cheaper than physical books,” he said. “Readers are going to demand that, and they are right because there are so many supply-chain efficiencies relative to printing a paper book.”

Other supply-chain efforts are now paying off, which is why the company is being rewarded, BusinessWeek asserts, for “expanding into new product areas and pouring money into new technology aimed at fulfilling orders more efficiently and crunching data on user buying and browsing habits.”

The Wall Street Journal calls Amazon one of “The Recession’s Early Winners,” observing, “Expect more bricks and mortar stores to close as overstretched consumers retrench. But when it comes to online retailers, the story changes.” This view of Amazon sees the company and certain other e-commerce merchants, such as Netflix, as a new breed of retailers who will survive the recession by providing desirable products at lower prices with user-friendly home delivery.

However, there’s also a less generous outlook regarding Amazon’s stock. The company’s fluctuating stock prices over the years and less than robust earnings raise doubts among stock watchers. Some who commented on BusinessWeek’s article, for example, called the stock price “absurd,” and “highly suspect,” and consider Amazon’s “the most manipulated stock in the market.” One wrote, “You would think that we were back in the bubble days of the dotcoms with the valuation afforded this stock.”

Amazon’s critics feel the media is contributing to the inflation of the company’s stock and playing right into the PR-conscious company’s hands. After all, Bezos and the Kindle 2 appeared on a range of national network TV shows in February and March, from the Today show to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Is all the Amazon press simply media hype for a company that doesn’t produce the earnings to match its stock price, or is it legitimate coverage of a retailer providing the innovative new technology that consumers desire? The reality may be a little bit of both, which offers an endless cycle of fodder for Amazon’s fans and critics alike.

So, is Amazon a legitimately hot retail tech industry stock, or are investors likely to get burned? It all depends on what you want to see.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seeking Better Ways To Communicate With Customers?

I had an interesting conversation with retail industry analyst Barry Wise the other day that seems timely as we launch our Retail Solutions Online Blog. The two of us were discussing the future of retail self-service technology and how retailers need to find better ways to communicate with customers, in particular Gen Y. A tech-savvy group, Gen Y consumers seek out self-service checkout and kiosks, sometimes preferring to wait in a self-service line rather than going to an empty aisle with a salesperson.

I witness Gen Y’s tech passion daily: I have a 16-year-old daughter who’d rather text her friends than call them. “Why do I need to talk to them?” she said when I asked if one call would be easier than 10 back-and-forth texts.

As a retailer, are you taking advantage of Gen Y’s tech obsession? “At two different conferences I recently attended, the emphasis was on the tech laggards — the ones who aren’t doing anything yet — who are going to get left behind if they don’t find a way to communicate and do business with the younger generation,” said Wise, an Epson senior marketing consultant, during our phone call.

Like retailers, Retail Solutions Online is actively seeking ways to communicate better with its customers — readers like you. We hope this blog leads to more direct, frequent interaction; lively discussions; and timely retail advice that you can use to grow your business. We’ll link to relevant stories on Retail Solutions Online (such as how the latest BI software can drive sales for you) and across the Web, and we’ll initiate dialogues we hope you’ll find rewarding.

Bookmark us and check back regularly for the latest retail news, analysis, updates, conversations with industry leaders, and engaging comments from readers like you.