How can High-End Department Stores Ensure Their Online Service Matches the Excellence of Their In-Store Experience?

With Covid-19 forcing many UK stores to close for months at a time, it comes as no surprise that eCommerce is on the rise. The proportion of retail sales from online purchases reached a record 35.2% in January 2021, as consumers and retailers alike adapted their habits to the new circumstances.

Retailers have rushed to implement new technologies. People who previously didn’t shop online have now embraced the digital experience. As consumers adapt to the ease and convenience of purchasing online, we can expect to see a permanent shift in shopping behaviour.

Based on their research, McKinsey predicts that some of the changes facilitated by the virus will become the shopping habits of the future, including customers’ preference for brands who can provide a truly omnichannel shopping experience.

This presents a unique challenge to high-end department stores, whose appeal has always been as much about the experience as the premium items they offer for sale. While parts of that appeal can’t be recreated online, a vital part of the high-end department store experience is the attentive, personalised service. And the advent of new technologies means that retailers can, and should, carry this through to their online stores.

A Digital Personal Shopper

One of the strengths of the higher-end department stores has always been their expert staff members. Shoppers receive knowledgeable and personalised recommendations from people who genuinely know their products inside out. This bespoke service is an integral part of the draw. While customers might be able to find similar stock in several different shops, they choose to return to their preferred department store because they trust they will receive excellent service.

Recognising this, some stores, such as Selfridges, started offering virtual appointments during the pandemic. These scheduled video calls are a digital replacement for the personal shopper appointments held during normal times. But there are ways to replicate the more bread-and-butter forms of personalised customer service online too. Just as they expect to be able to ask any staff member in a department store to point them in the right direction if they are browsing in-store, customers want to have guidance and suggestions when shopping online.

However, unlike your physical stores, your online store is never closed. And customers expect to access the information they need online no matter the time of day. So, how can department stores marry up their personal, bespoke service with the speed and efficiency demanded by online shoppers?

AI-powered chatbots can automate a great deal of this process, especially when integrated with a good CRM database. Drawing on data and insights from your CRM, chatbots can now provide recommendations from your product catalogue to customers in answer to their enquiries. Customers get personalised suggestions and can browse options directly in the chat. Or the enquiry can be passed seamlessly to a human sales agent, who can use their knowledge to further adapt recommendations to the customer’s needs.

Impeccable Customer Communications

Balancing the combined changes introduced by the pandemic and Brexit has been a challenge for UK retailers. And many have struggled to keep up with the volume of customer enquiries.

While this disruption won’t, with any luck, last for too long, an increasing number of online customers means heightened pressure on customer service teams. Previously, agents might have dealt with enquiries and complaints face-to-face, over the phone, or perhaps by email. But customers increasingly expect to contact stores via their website or social media too, meaning a deluge of requests coming in from all sorts of directions.

For upmarket department stores, the ability to keep customer communications smooth and timely is a necessary part of the premium service. Shoppers will be understanding in the short-term, but retailers who can’t pivot their service to meet new requirements will soon find themselves losing out. Some high-end stores may hesitate to automate any part of their customer service, worrying that it won’t be able to replicate their usual quality. Fortunately, AI has come a long way since its early days.

Unlike the old, rule-based chatbots that provided a clunky customer experience, these new chatbots are a valuable relationship-building tool. And they also leverage machine-learning to continuously improve. For luxury retailers, NLP chatbots can help to fill the gap between customer needs and the capacity of your human agents.

Once properly configured, AI-powered chatbots can handle routine enquiries, but also know when to hand the conversation over to a human being. This takes some of the pressure off your customer service team, meaning they are available to respond to the customers who genuinely need their help. It is the fluidity of the experience that matters most here. The best customer service is performed so smoothly that it is barely noticeable. You want your customers to have the same experience when shopping online. This means making it easy for them to find answers to their basic queries quickly, while being routed to a human being for any complex enquiries.

Brooks Brothers & Digital Genius

Brooks Brothers is the oldest clothing retailer in the US and by nature of the type of “Ivy League Style” they pioneered, one might expect them to be lacking in technical forward thinking. However this is far from the truth and Brooks Brothers actually presents a fine example of a high end and premium clothing company using Digital Genius’s customer service automation platform to resolve their support tickets.

Digital Genius was able to process and resolve nearly a quarter (22%) of it’s customer service tickets only 3 months after implementation. Another impressive stat is that average first reply time decreased by 25% with many customers receiving their answers within seconds. A full case study can be found here.

High-end department stores and clothing companies have perfected the in-store shopping experience, with knowledgeable, attentive staff members available to provide excellent service to customers. Bringing that same experience to their online shoppers will take some ingenuity, but retailers who enthusiastically and creatively embrace new technologies will set themselves apart.