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How smaller retailers can use in-store technology to collect data

6 minute read

Ed Palmer
Free wifi

Online marketers have been gathering data and tracking behaviour for years.

They use it to improve their landing pages – or to create a personalised shopping experience for their e-commerce customers.

But as innovative new technologies become more affordable and compact, plenty of retail brands are starting to bring digital tools into their physical stores.

We’ve got magic-mirror screens that change the colour of your lips before you put the lipstick on.

We’ve got computer-vision AI that can read CCTV footage to detect shoppers and individual products and items as they move through the store.

And perhaps most invasively of all, we’ve got facial recognition software that can identify your loyal customers (as well as known shoplifters) as soon as they walk into a store.

If that all sounds a bit much for your retail store, you’re probably right.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t put some more realistic and affordable technology in place.

Here are five of the most useful (and achievable) ways to use modern technology to help you better understand your customers: their preferences, their behaviour, and what kind of experience they’re having in your store.

1. Communal tablets to make surveys easy

Most people don’t want to download new apps to their phone if they can help it. And in reality, most customers don’t want to complete a customer satisfaction survey every time they use a business.

But with a small investment, you can make collecting data from customer surveys convenient and painless (and possibly a little bit fun).

UK brands like Pizza Express are already doing it. While you’re waiting for them to prepare your bill, their servers drop one of their store-owned tablets onto your table, already loaded up with their customer feedback survey.

By taking their customers’ own phones out of the equation, they’re much more likely to get the participation – and the data – they’re looking for.

(And it’s also a bit of a novelty for the customers to have a play with a tablet at their table. What else are they going to do while they wait for their bill?)

Of course, tablets and mobile devices aren’t cheap.

But depending on the size of your restaurant or store, you might only need three or four tablets in total to cover every customer at the end of each transaction. And if you get the right protective cases, these tablets should easily last your business a few years before they get worn out.

2. Radio tagging to create customer journeys

Computer Vision powered by artificial intelligence is probably beyond the scope of a typical smaller retail store.

But depending on your budget – or on the volume and average cost of your goods – Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging could give you a level of insight into your customers’ preferences that just wasn’t previously possible.

By fitting your products with a special tag or label that transmits low-wattage radio frequencies, you’ll be able to track the location of your products in real-time as they move through your store.

It’s not just a useful inventory management tool:

It’s also a way to understand your customer’s browsing behaviour before they reach the checkout.

You’ll be able to see the routes that people take through your store, as well as the particular pairings of products that people typically pick up.

That might mean understanding which fashion items go well together in your customers’ eyes – or which home appliances are usually chosen together.

And importantly, you’ll be able to recreate the typical customer’s journey as they choose and reject different products.

You’ll see exactly when your customers abandon one product and pick up another, which aisles or shelves they skip completely – and which promotional displays or special offers make them completely rethink their decisions.

3. Digital POS to track sales and preferences

If you’re still using a traditional cash register in your retail store, you’re missing out.

Modern POS (Point-of-sale) devices aren’t just useful for helping you keep track of your staff and your stock.

They’re also incredibly efficient at capturing historic shopping behaviours and sales records.

You’ll be able to see which items are bought together to help you create more attractive bundle offers.

You’ll be able to see which products are sold on particular days (and at what times), to give you better insights into the reasons why people use your business.

And if you have the right software on your POS system, you can even capture personal details at the moment of transaction, by giving your customers the option of receiving an email receipt for their purchase.

Once you start attaching email addresses to transactions, your POS software will be able to build up an order history for each customer – which means you’ll have a better understanding of what individual people use your business for.

But it’s not just about customer data:

The best POS systems and software can also open up huge new insights into the inner workings of your business, with better access and reports to your inventory and stock levels, your most profitable items (and your most effective sales people).

4. Free Wi-Fi (with a hidden motive)

These days, it’s a given that almost every retail store should be offering their customers free Wi-Fi access.

96% of shoppers prefer it, and nearly 60% actually demand it.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get something back from them in exchange.

That could be as simple as asking for an email sign-up before they get access to your store’s free internet – or it could be something a little more involved:

Services like Aislelabs can use your in-store Wi-Fi to monitor your customers’ location in your store, giving you insights into things like:

  • First-time and repeat visitors
  • Walking paths and routes through your shop
  • Real-time footfall heatmaps
  • And how long people dwell in certain areas or in front of certain product ranges.

For the small cost of giving away free internet access, these kinds of data are a bargain. You’ll be able to get a better idea of how people experience your store: which products aren’t getting enough attention, and which parts of your store people spend the most time in.

5. Touchscreen kiosks to track your customer’s decisions

Online marketers love to track visitors on their websites.

They know exactly which links and images were most popular, the most common routes people take to navigate through the site – and which pages people spend the most time on.

So why not bring that same level of data into a physical shopping experience?

Your customers probably love playing with toys. And they’re more likely to be honest about their preferences and buying criteria when they’re left to browse alone without a member of staff helping them.

When your customers start browsing and shopping through an in-store kiosk, they’re leaving a digital footprint of every action they take – which can help you to reconstruct their thought processes.

By following their browsing path, you’ll be able to find out:

  • Which products look unattractive at first glance
  • Which products appear over-priced
  • Which kinds of photo galleries and product descriptions are the most attractive or convincing
  • And exactly how your customers go through their decision-making process (by price, by colour, etc.)

Of course, a touchscreen kiosk is likely to be a big investment. But depending on the size of your store and how many customers you have, you might only need one kiosk to help every customer and get the data you need.

But what about privacy and data laws?

That’s a good question.

Whenever you collect, store, or use anyone’s data (whether that’s employees or customers) you need to be incredibly careful about how you protect and use it – and how you inform people about your collection and use of it.

In most cases, you’ll be putting your trust into the IT or marketing companies that are helping you to install your systems and gather and measure your data. If you’ve chosen a reputable company, they should be knowledgeable enough to talk you through the legal requirements and best practices.

But if you want to be assured you won’t land yourself in trouble, it’s worth understanding the rules and regulations yourself – so make sure you have a look through the government’s guides to Data Protection for businesses, and the more recent legislation surrounding GDPR.

So where should I start?

Some of these data-gathering methods are more complex or costly than others.

And if you’re not technically-minded, it can all seem a bit confusing.

So if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get better insights into your customers and their experiences, I’d recommend starting off with an outsourced service based on a commonplace technology.

That could mean using a marketing service to help you get surveys through in-store devices – or it could mean getting more out of the free Wi-Fi you already have with a service like Aislelabs.

The important part is to get started with something you feel comfortable with. Track the results, and measure your return on investment – and only then should you start thinking about bigger investments like kiosks and complex POS systems.

Did you find this helpful? If so, be sure to check out these other useful tips and guides in Retail and Tech.

Ed Palmer is a freelance copywriter at Keep This Copy. He's spent more than five years helping businesses look good and sell more stuff – writing for and about almost every business and industry there is.

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