What I learnt at the RetailEXPO that benefits Independents

Retail Expo 2019 at London Olympia

Retail Expo 2019 at London Olympia

I’ve just come back from an interesting few days at the annual RetailEXPO at London Olympia. The exhibition aims primarily at larger retailers, and specialised in showcasing retail technology. It had a comprehensive seminar and lecture program. And opportunities to network with industry specialists and suppliers.

As an owner of a small business, and a retail coach mentoring independent retailers, I normally wouldn’t have attended. On this occasion though, my friend Jen, of The Split Screen Coffee Company, was invited to be part of the Sage UK stand. She is one of their brand ambassadors and has featured in an advertising campaign for them. She needed help at the show so it gave me the opportunity to improve my coffee skills and learn more about retail innovations at the same time.

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Serving coffee at the Sage stand and highlighting the benefit of human interaction!    Robots for improved customer service and interaction in retail?

Serving coffee at the Sage stand and highlighting the benefit of human interaction!

Robots for improved customer service and interaction in retail?

I was keen to see how big retail technology could be used to benefit Independents. And as we’re thinking about updating our till system at The Bead Shop to be more reliable and integrated, I was hoping to get an insight into what’s available.

Overall, I found the technology on display very impressive but a bit scary and big brother-esque! It seemed there was so much focus on learning everything possible about a potential customer, the second they walk in the door. Whilst I can see how it’s useful to know a customer's tastes and interests, and whether they’ve already purchased from you online, I can’t help feeling it’s a step too far. Should we really be treating them differently because a computer tells us too? Do customers actually want to speak to robots rather than humans? Does the average shopkeeper know what pseudonymisation and obfuscation means, or even need to?

Inside the RetailEXPO

Inside the RetailEXPO

There was also lots of emphasis on smart displays in shop windows and digital signage. I found this quite amusing, as it reminded me of old fashioned videos of kids, staring in awe at TV’s whilst walking past shops. I’m sure there are several punk music videos with this exact theme! Again, I can’t help thinking that a beautiful display with actual products and themed props would be more popular and successful.

With tills in mind, I had a look around at all the cash management, epos solutions, self-checkouts and scanners. Although impressive, they all seemed to cost more than the familiar izettle, sum-up, square etc., with few extra benefits. Most of them also had issues that meant they wouldn’t completely meet our needs at the shop. For example, we offer 5 for the price of 4 on some products, which these systems couldn’t cope with (3 for 2 didn’t seem to be a problem though). I concluded that we’d probably need a bespoke system to get all the functions we’d like.

Out of the whole experience, the most beneficial part of the exhibition was the talks. These covered a broad range of topics from social media, to experience led retail, and the future of the high street. I did find the focus on buzz words quite frustrating...I’ve never heard CRM, ROI, Halo effect and iterative mentioned so many times before!

My key take away points from The Social Media For Retail talk are as follows. Focus on sharing user generated content as much as possible. Everyone likes to have their photos shared by the brands they tag, so make the most of this easy way to create posts and stories! Make sure that you interact with customers and reply to their comments using a one person voice as this provides authenticity. Be visable, humble and apologetic if things go wrong. React to what your customers are asking for. Influencers and paid ads on social media both provide good return on investment.

The Future Of The High Street panel talk focused on diversifying the high street by adding in more leisure and community aspects. There was also a call for strong leadership being necessary to drive retail areas into a more successful future. Nick Johnson, of Market Operations, concluded that high streets must embrace independent retailers, celebrating their culture, creativity and enterprise. This is similar to my theory that independents are the key to saving the high street.

At the start of the day, I thought small businesses didn’t stand a chance competing with all the data, metrics and analysis available to big retail. But then I realised, it’s the personal touch that makes indies so great. They focus on content over design, they are focused on real people, they listen and absorb their customers wants and needs. Independents focus on people not metrics, not face recognition or statistics but talk. We should lead the revolution and rebel!

How do you feel you can use this information to improve your customer service? Do you find you struggle to engage with your customers? I’d love to hear your thoughts, get in touch here.