The One Muscle Canadian Retailers Need to Grow

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By Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist, Salesforce

Over the course of travelling to multiple countries across North America and Europe this year, I’ve had conversations with many retail organizations, and the most successful ones tend to share one thing in common with their counterparts in Canada.

The business leaders who consistently achieve new levels of growth are continually developing what I’ll call their “anticipatory muscle” — an ability to think ahead to what their customers want and need, even before they’re asked. It's the clothing store where savvy associates can suggest the perfect items to complete an outfit, or the hardware store that not only provides building supplies, but ideas on how to make the most of the tools a customer purchases.

The difference today is that so much of the way consumers research, price-compare and ultimately develop a relationship with retailers has shifted to digital channels. It’s simply no longer possible to always apply a “personal touch" in person.

Retailers no doubt realize they will need to invest more in digital technologies to develop their anticipatory muscle, but the long-term payoff for such investments -- especially when you're a small business -- may not always be clear. 

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Fortunately, some recent research Salesforce published leaves little doubt about the business case for automation.

Based on a survey of more than 400 firms of varying sizes across the country, our report, ‘Future Ready: Advancing Canadian Business In The Digital Economy’ proves there is a strong correlation between companies that increase their use of digital technology and the impact on revenue and other critical metrics.

Those that move quickly to take advantage of mobile apps, artificial intelligence and other innovative tools were nearly twice as likely (25 per cent versus 13 per cent) as others to say their businesses have grown strongly over the last three years. Thirty-one per cent forecast strong growth over the next year, meanwhile, versus 15 per cent for those who somewhat increased their use of tech or stayed the same.

On the other hand, almost half (49 per cent) of Canadian businesses told us that it’s difficult to get good advice about how to apply technologies to their business. In other words, developing an anticipatory muscle will require retailers to exercise it with the right equipment, but it's kind of like when walking into the gym for the first time. You may recognize some of the machines and weights scattered around the room, but it’s not necessarily obvious where to start, or how many sets you need to do to reach your goals.

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Getting Customer Experience In Tip-Top Shape

A personal trainer would probably tell you that the size of the weights you lift or the number of sets isn’t as important as your form — the way in which you lift and lower the weights, your breathing and so on. It’s the same with your anticipatory muscle as a retail leader. Your “form,” in this case, is the kind of customer experience you deliver. This includes everything from how customers first hear about you through your marketing efforts, to the way you sell and how you support them afterwards.

This was borne out in our research as well, where enhancing customer service or relationships was the most-cited organizational or operational change that is facilitating growth at 47 per cent. When faced with opportunities to try digital technologies, in other words, start by asking how they can make the customer experience better — how they can help you get ahead of their expectations and needs.

If you’re still stumped, maybe stop focusing on your own firm for a minute and take a second look at the high-growth success stories we seem to be hearing about every day.

PHOTO: INDOCHINO

PHOTO: INDOCHINO

Vancouver-based Indochino, for example, has disrupted the traditional menswear industry by creating a seamless shopping experience that lets customers order completely custom suits and other garments online. While its customers might admire its website, however, Indochino’s success has come through strategically using digital customer service applications, including chatbots, to manage complex orders and marketing automation to stay in close contact after a suit has been shipped. Analytics tools, meanwhile, help guide everything Indochino does, boosting productivity by 300 per cent. This has allowed Indochino to become truly omni-channel and open physical showrooms in major cities. 

Even more traditional retailers that didn’t start out “digital-first” have seen similar results. Take Saje Natural Wellness, which managed to launch a revamped website in a matter of months that included powerful e-commerce capabilities. By offering predictive product recommendations and personalized email messages with new product updates and promotions, Saje is able to replicate the intimacy of its in-store experiences online.

These are all simple customer experiences that have removed the friction in long-established industries.

photo: saje

photo: saje

The Next Step For Healthy, Growing Companies

Next, think about what tends to happen once you’ve been working out for a while and have started to see some results. Someone newer walks into the gym and looks as uncertain as you once did. The right thing to do is show them around, or even spot them as they challenge themselves with a heavier weight. The development of your anticipatory muscle should make you alert to your responsibilities to the wider community too.

While 81 per cent of Canadian business leaders who answered our survey said they believe Canada is an innovative country, 52 per cent also believe the country is lagging in technology adoption. That’s a call to action to work better together, where growing retailers look for opportunities to pay it forward and help share best practices with their suppliers, distributors and other partners.

That isn’t the only way to give back, of course. You could encourage employees to make a difference with a local charity or non-profit through volunteer hours, or funnel some of your profit into things that benefit society as a whole.

Canadian companies are clearly working hard to make their anticipatory muscles stronger than ever. Now it’s time to think about the best way to flex them.

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