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Around the retail world in a day with Karen Voelker

She shops, but she never drops. Karen has a talent for helping clients experience the most relevant retail innovations.

Tell us about your work at the Accenture Customer Innovation Network.
We are the “nerve center” of our customer industries. We help our clients invent their future through workshops where we dig into their biggest issues and opportunity areas. We talk about the art of the possible and what it means for their company. It’s like a rapid-fire innovation forum.

One of my favorite things is getting our clients out in the market. We conduct innovation immersion sessions that take place in stores, in the actual shopping environment, to stretch their thinking. For example, if the customer is looking to target millennials, we’ll say, “OK, you are a 24-year-old working mom; here is your motivation,” and we set them up with experiences that get them in the right mindset. Then they experience the store through the eyes of that persona. That enables them to look at stores very differently than in the past. Clients get a lot of insights from it. The exercise is much more eye opening than sitting in an office.

During the recent National Retail Federation (NRF) show in New York, you created a “Retail Innovation Immersion” tour for some of Accenture’s retail clients. What did that tour entail?
We had 25 clients from 7 different accounts and 3 continents take the tour. For each client, we curated a very unique list of stores to visit, based on their pain points and opportunity areas. Depending on how much time they had, or what they were interested in seeing, we’d pull from our master list of stores that are interesting in NYC. Each one of these stores has something innovative happening. By the end of the experience, the team had walked 60,946 steps and visited 33 stores through the immersions!

Who is part of these immersions?
Our clients, of course. But we also bring along people who have specific retail subject matter expertise so they can go deep to identify opportunities. They know what is working or not working. This may include experts in supply chain, merchandising, customer experience, analytics, digital marketing. People who recognize innovation in their specific area of expertise. That is what makes it so much more than just touring stores.

What are some of the most interesting retail breakthroughs you experienced during this immersion?
There were some common themes. One of the biggest is the concept around community. Making stores more than a place to buy products. It’s about engaging with the community, giving something back. Staying top of mind. If there is a community aspect, it is easier to draw someone in.

Lululemon in New York City does a great job of this. They opened a store in the Flatiron District, and that is their flagship for the east coast. They call the basement the “hub.” Half is a lounge area, where you can get free coffee and water, sit on couches and just meet and mingle with people. The other half is where they offer classes. There was a workshop on contemporary dance and yoga when we were there. They partner with local businesses to offer the classes. It’s interesting because they are providing a service that is based on their brand, which is centered on health and wellness.

What was customer service like at the various stores?
It is amazing at some places. For instance, Lululemon has a concierge right there when you walk in. That person is there to help you be healthy and well while in New York. They’ll give you restaurant recommendations; they’ll help you map out where to do your three-mile run.

Birchbox is a store I take everyone to. It started as a subscription-only business, where the customer gets a box of samples every month. They realized that they have a lot of samples, and they wanted to convert those samples to real sizes. Now, you can try the products there in the store and buy the full-size version of what you like. They even offer salon services, things like getting a ”Just Eyes” or a “Master Makeup Lesson.”

I also like Bonobos, They started online only, and have since opened stores because they realized they need a place to interact with customers. They have these associates called “ninjas,” who are known for customer service. My husband wore a pair of pants from their brand only twice, but had them for a year. He told them, he was not a fan. They let him return the pants for free, and they gave him a credit to enjoy a different pair.

Did you notice explicit differences or similarities across retail segments?
Every store is trying to be more experiential. Just like Lululemon’s classes—they provide an experience. Grocery is trying to get people in the door. Eataly is a great place to visit for food. You get to come and access food from Italy that you may not have seen before. And it’s all for purchase.

We’re also seeing more customization. The notion of “how do you target me?” We saw that in Birchbox. I went in and said, “my hair is frizzy; what do you recommend?” Rather than pointing to four different products, the associate just said, “this is the best one.” The brand has a rich amount of reviews from people who have tried their products, so I really felt good about her recommendation.

Ray-Ban has an area in its store where you could create your own sunglasses. Levi’s has a station at Macy’s Herald Square where you can personalize jeans by lasering on text or emblems. Macy’s Herald Square even has an entire area targeted to millennials. It’s called the “one below” floor. The product assortment is at a price point that millennials can afford. For example, they have a Kate Spade section, but it includes products that are more affordable.

What other trends were apparent among retailers?
Convenience. Retailers want to figure out how do I create a convenient and frictionless experience? They’re looking at mobile point of sale. They’re equipping store associates with iPads where they can look up your order history. Nespresso has a coffee boutique with two floors of retail and four tasting bars where you can try products for free. They gave me an RFID-enabled tag, so whenever I visit the store, they can pull up information on me, like what kinds of pods do I typically buy.

We’re also seeing more retailers partner with others because they realize they don’t have to do it all themselves. For example, Whole Foods is working with Instacart. In high-volume stores, Instacart employees use a dedicated register to check out. Then, a separate delivery service delivers the products to the customer’s home.

The innovations you mentioned are proof that retail is evolving at a rapid pace. What do retailers need to stay ahead of to remain competitive?
Retailers are changing the model of how we buy. Best Buy in Chelsea implemented a robot called “Chloe.” They wanted to create a vending machine that allowed people to access products, like games and movies, 24/7. For high-frequency shoppers, they want to buy all the time. They want easy access to products, and they want to get them quicker. Every retailer should also be thinking about what services can I provide clients on top of my products? Almost every innovative store we visited had some sort of service they provide. There are many opportunities to extend what you are already offering. That will also help to build customer relationships and loyalty. Client selling is important. Everyone thinks about delighting customers, but it’s equally important to delight associates. They need to be engaged and excited about products. They need to have passion for it. Sales associates must be well-trained and empowered. No one is really doing this at scale. Empower them with information, at their fingertips, that is digestible and easy to use. Customers will notice the difference.

Learn more about the Accenture Customer Innovation Network.

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