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Tech can help online retailers in a lot of ways – and even bring out their human side… Joanne Frearson investigates

In an age where customers take the ability to shop seamlessly and instantaneously from a myriad of digital devices, staying relevant to consumers – and putting the technological systems in place to deliver what they want – can be a challenge for retailers.

Retail and technology director at Shop Direct, Jon Rudoe, believes this seamless mobile shopping experience is the biggest problem retailers are trying to solve for customers. From the retailers’ perspective, he explains, it is about being able to stay relevant to consumers in a mobile world – comparing the situation to that of a “three-second audition”. “You are a thumb-swipe away from not being relevant,” he points out. “It is about making sure you pass that three-second smartphone audition. On a small screen, it is about thinking how you put things that are relevant in front of the customer.”

Rudoe explains that this applies not just to the message you are trying to convey to the customer, but also to how you start presenting products to them. “We do a bunch of work to make sure we personalise the page customers land on, and the order of products they see when they search and also the recommendations that they provide,” he explains.

Tracing its roots to UK mail-order firms such as Littlewoods and Kays, which were gradually absorbed by it, Shop Direct changed its focus to digital retail as customers switched to buying products online. It is now the second-largest pure play digital retailer in the UK after Amazon.

“You are a thumb-swipe away from not being relevant. It is about making sure you pass that three-second smartphone audition.” – John Rudoe, Shop Direct

“We have gone from an organisation that hands out eight to 10 million catalogues a year to one now that is a digital business, with over two thirds of our business mobile,” says Rudoe. But he sees the company’s transformation as a customer-led one rather than a technological necessity. “The most important thing that sits behind [our technology] is a really strong understanding of who the customer is,” he explains. “What they want from us? It is all borne out of solving the needs of the customer.

Rudoe believes the application of technology actually enables Shop Direct to lend a more human touch to its retail activity, like attentive staff members of an old-fashioned department store. “They might have remembered your size,” he says. “They might be able to give you a really good recommendation.”

Rudoe explains that using machine learning can help retailers analyse customer behaviour online and offer them recommendations based on what they search for. This can be used to either offer them additional products they might be interested in, or be used to recognise when a customer is becoming less engaged. “The fact is, that is really hard to do at scale in the human world – but using data and technology it becomes easy in the digital world, but it is still a very human process.”

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Dragging retail into the 21st century.
Read the full issue online now!

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