Ruth Crowley pulled no punches in describing the complex and oftentimes challenging processes her organization takes to leverage solutions such as cashierless checkout.

The Self-Service Innovation Summit began with a bang Tuesday as Ruth Crowley, a seasoned retail technology veteran, offered an inside view of how a global retail organization revamps its footprint to meet rapidly changing customer needs.

Crowley, vice president of merchandise and brand strategy at Hudson Group, which operates airport convenience stores, pulled no punches in describing the complex and oftentimes challenging processes her organization takes to leverage solutions such as cashierless checkout.

The keynote session, titled. “The Customer Journey, How Has It Changed and What Does the Future Hold,” set the stage for the two-and-a-half day Summit at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida.

Crowley made no secret of the fact that consumers are more demanding and not yet satisfied with the options retailers are offering.

According to surveys, she said 80% of CEOs think they do a good job providing services to customers, compared to 18% of customers.

How customers have changed

“You have to continue to change and evolve because the world has changed, and we can’t stand still,” she said. “One of the things we’ve really seen is that the customer journey has changed.”

The proliferation of options, driven largely by COVID, drove this change by familiarizing people with how to use technology. As a result, customers have become less patient.

As a company that specializes in the travel sector, Hudson had no choice but to review its offerings and develop new concepts when airport travel came to a total standstill at some of its locations.

“Not innovation for innovation’s sake, but innovation for the purpose,” she said.

Hudson’s innovations

One innovation was the Hudson Non-stop using Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology, where customers insert or tap a payment card to enter the store, pick up their products and exit. The store includes global and local brands, including snacks, beverages, health and beauty products, electronics and accessories.

These technologies are expensive, she said, and deploying them wasn’t easy.

“The key here is behind the scenes and the work that we have to do in integrating the effort and integrate components in order so that the system works, and works continuously,” she said. “It’s not easy, it’s not for the faint of heart, but we’re absolutely thrilled to be able to work with this.”

The need for tighter retail spaces resulted in another concept called “Evolve,” which consists of “shop-in-shop” specialty brand experiences, blending travel essentials and specialty brands, allowing both self-checkout and mobile POS payment. Local brands became the central focus, in addition to national and global brands.

“The customer can easily see into the store, and so they can quickly scan the store, make the selection and… leave. We considered their behavior and their traffic patterns and their preference as we move forward,” she said.

Another concept was Brookstone, a 24/7 retail destination for global and local electronics brands that Hudson Group acquired and adjusted the product selection.

“In some of the smaller airports the beauty of automated retail was we could offer brands that might not formerly fit that model, but we could bring something extra incremental to the customer,” she said.

The company recently deployed QR codes for virtual try-on in some of its makeup concepts.

“They can attach the QR code and just try on makeup,” she said.

Team collaboration

Crowley stressed the importance of having the entire Hudson team involved in the process.

“We’ll continue to provide enabling options not just for our customer, but also for our associates,” she said. “One of the beauties of this automated element is that our associates can now come out on the floor and interact more freely with customers.”

“Innovation is not prescriptive,” she said. “And customer experience is not an initiative, it’s an imperative.

“Contactless doesn’t mean that you lose contact with your customer. Contactless means that they have options. Your connectivity to the customer on an ongoing basis is critical for sustaining success all the way into the future.”

What is ‘innovation’?

The word “innovation” gets used a lot, but what exactly does it mean?

“Innovation has to be convenient for the customer,” she said, and it has to be seamless.

“The systemic and the technological elements have to align with the customer’s human needs,” she said. “If you do, you have a win.”

Audience weighs in

Asked during the Q&A period what type of team the company has in order to integrate the various aspects of its new solutions, Crowley emphasized that team collaboration is imperative to introduce new concepts. She said the company first tests new ideas, reviews the results, then tests the concept with some of its operating partners to see if it’s viable.

Asked if the company’s ROI has changed for new technology, Crowley said it depends on the technology. She said the company’s Non-stop location is very expensive, requiring a higher sales volume to cover the cost.

“I think that the return on investment principles are the same, but the model changes,” she said.

Asked what management fundamentals had to be disrupted, she said the key for management is to listen to the employees so that they can continue to be effective in their roles and be able to collaborate.

Asked if the stores using Amazon “Just Walk Out” technology improved sales, Crowley said most stores offering the new technology are new stores. However, they found that customers have different needs, and that people like going to these stores because they feel they are in control.

Asked how Hudson Group determines the right mix of technologies to deploy, Crowley said they study a store’s customer demographics and wait times, which can vary a lot among stores.

“We work to ensure that the technology applies to the customer demographics,” she said. “One size doesn’t fit all. But what we do is try to balance the mix so that the customer has options.”

Asked why some kiosks are not accepting the most recent payment capabilities, Crowley said this reflects the fact that the technology is still evolving at retail. She said the elements of the payment system need to synchronize, which is not always the case with existing kiosks.

“It’s coming, for sure,” she said.

She encouraged her listeners to spend time with the exhibitors at the Summit to see how their solutions can be applied.

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