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Retailers turning to technology to offer smarter online and in-store experiences

By Oludare Ogunlade

As the holiday shopping rush gets into full swing, retailers are increasingly looking to technology that they can use to improve their operations, better understand and engage with their customers – using both off- and online channels – and set themselves apart from the competition.

While the industry has relied heavily on big seasonal sales to drive revenue and profitability over the course of the year, changing consumer behaviour and buying patterns means retailers are having to explore alternative methods convincing customers to buy their products and services.

Estimates from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) report on How technology is driving retail in Africa suggest that e-commerce sales in Africa could reach somewhere in the region of US$50- 75bn per year within the next 5-10 years and Nigeria is in pole position to take advantage of e-commerce potential, on the basis of its high business environment opportunity potential.

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While many African consumers still prefer shopping in physical stores or using street traders and informal markets for their purchases, access to technology is on the rise, which brings a larger range of products to a wider range of consumers. In some countries, e-commerce is serving rural areas very effectively, as companies are able to deliver to less accessible places, where sourcing goods from shops or stalls may not be as straightforward.

Engaging digital experiences

Mobile accounts for 52.2 % of all worldwide website traffic generated in 2018 and for half of all global web pages served, as such retailers need to have a comprehensive digital presence in order to stay relevant. This is especially the case in developing markets, including in Africa, where mobile devices are their primary means of access to the internet.

According to the EIU’s report, smartphones are a gateway tool to the internet for Africans, especially in Nigeria, where the mobile penetration rate is forecast to rise from 103 per 100 in 2016 to 122 per 100 by 2021. The report also found that smartphone adoption in Nigeria has been growing strongly with the Nigerian Communications Commission reporting that mobile subscriptions accounted for 99.9% of all phone subscriptions as at end-2016, while the number of active mobile internet subscriptions at 91.9 million, or 59.6% of total subscriptions represents one of the highest rates of mobile internet usage in the world.

It is also interesting to note that Nigeria came second in the list of countries with the highest percentage of online sites viewed on mobile phones (81%), compared to the global average of 50%, according to Statcounter data from January 2018.

Customers are doing more research online before making a purchasing decision, even while in store, and brands need to ensure that they are able to capitalise on this initial interest. Apart from more information on products or services, a brand’s website or application should also give users the ability to engage in real-time conversations to resolve any queries and further persuade the customer to buy.

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Increased personalisation

While African retailers are sitting on huge volumes of data about their customers, many are still not sure what to make of it all. Thankfully, improvements in connectivity and advances in cloud computing mean that they can now turn to customer experience cloud applications, such as Oracle CX Cloud to deliver a consistent and personalised experience across all channels, touch points and interactions.

With the right algorithms, customers are presented with better product recommendations, which take into account their buying history, and spending patterns. By considering unique tastes and preferences, customers are shown products that they are more likely to be interested in, while the retailer stands to benefit from increased sales.

Armed with this data, retailers can also overhaul the way in which they manage their sales and promotions: rather than a one-size fits all, they can provide different levels of savings, promotions that are exclusive to actively engaged shoppers and even event invitations for VIP loyalty members.

A smarter in-store experience

Traditional brick and mortar stores are not going disappear anytime, and taking an omni-channel approach means that they still have a role to play for retailers – they will just have to change the way in which they operate, by offering an in-store experience that cannot be replicated online.

The Nielsen Shopper Trends 2017 study found that 87% of Nigerian shoppers say they prefer to shop in a well organised grocery store with an enjoyable atmosphere. The same number stated that customer service is very important to them, especially when they shop for groceries. Retailers that want to capitalise on this feedback must optimise the in-store experience for their shoppers and provide them with a more personalised service. This can be achieved with innovative merchandising, stand out promotional displays and smart stores.

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Brands can use smart stores to meld the digital and physical world, enabling shoppers to browse and buy online, but then pick up their purchases in store. Shoppers can be linked to their online profiles through technologies such as bluetooth or near field communications, and have personalised offers or loyalty rewards instantly sent to them.

The retail sector in Nigeria is burgeoning thanks to increased access to connectivity and smartphone penetration. Both physical stores and e-commerce platforms can benefit from this growth potential by investing in the right technology to future-proof their businesses.

Oludare Ogunlade is the  Sales Director, West Africa Applications at Oracle

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