How retail industry transformation can start with a single phone call

Dr. Tracy Wilen visits Toronto to discuss the way innovative companies are using a blends of technologies to nurture relationships with their best shoppers

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Tracey Wilen came all the way from Silicon Valley to tell a Toronto audience how cutting-edge digital technologies are changing the retail game.

And she did. Yet she also ended up recounting a personal story involving one of the oldest technology staples still kicking around today: the telephone.

Wilen spent 15 years at Cisco, one at HP and seven at Apple. She’s now a prolific author and speaker on technology, business and workforce trends. As she explained in her recent presentation at the Retail Advertising and Marketing Canada Symposium, she simply picked up the phone one day when it rang at her house.

“Hello,” a real live human voice greeted her from the other end of the line. “It’s Nordstrom calling. We miss you!”

Turns out, the U.S. retailer noticed that Wilen usually visited its store every December. But when she mysteriously deviated from that shopping pattern one year, they couldn’t help wondering why.

“You didn’t come in this December. And we miss you,” the Voice of Nordstrom told Wilen over the phone.

Not only did Nordstrom notice that she’d failed to make her annual December pilgrimage to its castle of consumer goods, but based on her past purchases, it also assumed (correctly) that she’s a business executive. So the Voice of Nordstrom duly informed her that women’s business wear just happened to be on sale… and her “favorite sales associate” was waiting at the nearest store with a $100 gift certificate. Just for her.

Wilen wondered if the call was legit. So she politely ended that rather surprising phone chat, looked up a corporate number for Nordstrom and gave them a ring.

“So I call the store and go, ‘What are you doing? You’re flipping me out!’’ Wilen told the Toronto audience.

After making her fact-checking call to Nordstrom, Wilen learned that the deal was indeed real.

What can Canadian retailers learn from Wilen’s story?

That digital technology gives retailers access to more customer data than ever before. Not just en masse statistics, but information that is unique to each shopper.

That retailers can tap into that data in order to “Know Thy Customer”. Nordstrom personalized its interaction with her by noting her past shopping patterns, the kind of clothing she buys at their stores and even the salesperson who served her when she made most of her in-store purchases.

That engagement should not only happen via various channels, but be coordinated across all of them. Nordstrom tracked Wilen’s purchase data, told her about the special offer over the phone and made sure a specific salesperson could be available to serve her in the store.

Wilen’s presentation covered a lot more ground, including some top technology trends affecting retail now and in the future. Although there isn’t room to list them all, here are four biggies.

Extreme longevity: Scientists predict we may live to age 142 some day. That means employees in their eighties could be toiling alongside coworkers in their teens and twenties. Retailers will have to effectively manage all of those generations and “their different views of technology,” said Wilen.

Neuroscience and biometrics: Researchers are studying this stuff to find out why we buy what we buy. Wilen believes it will eventually lead to bio-targeted marketing as portrayed by Minority Report way back in 2002.

New skills: “We’re moving from a classical world to a digital world and that requires new skills,” said Wilen. Retailers must recruit new talent (and imbue existing staff) with an expanding range of multimedia skills, she said.

Trend borrowing: Keep an eye on emerging tech trends and consider how you can borrow them for the retail world. Wilen’s example: doctors “borrowed” 3D printing innovations for the medical milieu, creating ears for disfigured patients using real human cells.


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