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The future of retail and digitisation


Sam Bain

Multichannel Channel Director, Brown Thomas and Arnotts

The retail sector may not be synonymous with digital technology and innovation, but renewed value in the customer experience may just bring the three together.

Sam Bain, Multichannel Channel Director at Brown Thomas and Arnotts, is one of the leading women in tech and retailing in Ireland today.

No stranger to the retail industry nor the ‘very outdated stereotypes’ for a career within it.

Her rise to prominence and success in her current leadership position, reflects her varied experience and expertise. Having previously worked with some of the world’s leading multinationals she is no stranger to the retail industry since she started out in 1999. Bain’s Creative Arts Degree and Post Graduate in Management adds another dynamic edge to her role in the ever evolving retail sphere.

The digital era is revolutionising the landscape for businesses and customers. These changes are reflected in the new scope of activity that provide the platform for successful retailing. “In the last five to ten years the demand and advancement of creative, technical, merchant and analytical digital roles that are required for retailing online has skyrocketed” says Bain.

Customer experience in retail

Reports have indicated that, by 2020, customer experience will overtake price as the key brand differentiator. However, customer experience is already at the forefront of Bain’s consideration. “In today’s world, customers expect a retail experience that exists both online as well as in physical stores and they expect to move between each easily,” says Bain.

“We really do see digitization as a core pillar to maintain great customer experience,” says Bain. “Smartphones and mobile technology is at the heart of this revolution and is creating new moments for our business to engage with customers. 86% of adults in Ireland own a smartphone and a huge percentage of them shop online.”

“Our multichannel vision is about recognising the customer, their lifestyle and purchasing journey and providing a personalized, creative and useful solution in both channels (online and in store)”.

The speed at which consumer demands and technological advances are evolving has been reflected in the team of which Bain is at the forefront. The digital team at Brown Thomas and Arnotts has expanded dramatically in just over four years to a diverse team and now comprises of over 50 experts, from seven nations with a 60:40 female to male split. Bain is leading the charge with a creative approach and digitization at its heart.

Developing creative solutions

Utilising digital solutions to improve customer experience involves creativity and constant innovation, which Bain finds in-house amongst the diverse and talented team. “We are always driving innovation and in many ways trying to leapfrog onto the next thing. The introduction of our internal Innovation Team which represents customer segments across all demographics, is an ideal group to test prototypes. With over 3,000 employees, a large percentage are millennials and digital natives” says Bain.

The trust in the millennial influence has already begun to have a positive impact on customer experience with the development of a multichannel digital magazine issued quarterly.

“This is a deliberate move away from print into digital editorial to bring the brand to life in a new and dynamic experience for our customers. Created entirely in-house, the digital magazine showcases luxury retail in a new format that represents our customer’s lifestyles and media consumption habits. Featuring interviews, interactive video, fashion and beauty shoots it is available online, through social media platforms and e-mail and really gives our customers a full view of the brand and what we are doing. It also allows customers to shop the products online.”

In-store digitisation

“Our stores are renowned for leading the way with best brands and delivering the newest trends to our customers across all categories. We carry this expectation and ethos across our group, including our online business as well as in our stores. We continue to strive to anticipate the next big ideas and new ways to use tech which will benefit all of our customers.” Bain added.

For some retailers, the traditional in-store environment has long been absent of true innovation and change in terms of the customer experience – a  plateau in creativity – which Bain believes can be enhanced through incorporation digital technology.

The use of in-store digital technology can extend way beyond stock management into creating a premium customer experience. Bain believes “It is all about leveraging digital capability to create physical experiences in our stores and creating a truly exciting and exceptional experience”.

“With personal or private shopping appointments, we can use our digital capabilities to build personalised shopping choices, where customers pre-select products and then they are waiting for them in the fitting room. In terms of convenience, customers who shop online can avail of click and collect services at their nearest store. Our Beauty Halls are also integrating digital capabilities and last year Estee Lauder had a selfie station pop-up allowing customers to shade match lipsticks without having to physically apply the shade.”

Further development of an ‘integrated loyalty app’ has allowed for “more personalised and individual messaging,” and even in-store recognition, where the app recognises your individual purchasing history upon entry to the store, and can notify you of relevant promotional offers.

“If you have been interested in purchasing an espresso machine and there is a promotion in-store, you will be notified of the deal upon entry,” says Bain. The app will become transactional in 2018 and offer customers even more convenience.

The future retail experience

The future of the customer experience and retail sector is sure to surprise and intrigue with technological developments a main thread, according to Bain.

“Artificial intelligence and big data are most commonly anticipated. I anticipate things like ‘chat-bots’ (digital personal shopping assistants) but also really simple things such as digital mirrors in changing rooms,” says Bain.

This progression toward a digitized customer experience involves a need for a diverse range of skills from people with different backgrounds to be truly successful.

“There are a huge number of skillsets that are involved in delivering a successful retail brand, especially today. The word ‘multichannel’ encompasses it. A digitized space requires a whole number of different skill sets – including multi-tasking, flexibility, creativity, technical expertise and of course customer service… I believe this area provides a lot of opportunity for women,” says Bain.

Whatever the future holds for the retail experience – from personalised shopping assistants to apps that remind you of your interest in an espresso machine – the future of retail offers so much more than what is available on the shop floor. With multi-channel teams as creative and ambitious as Brown Thomas’ – the future of retail space looks limitless.

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