Ruth Crowley, vice president of merchandise and brand strategy at the Hudson Group, will give the opening keynote at the Self-Service Innovation Summit Dec. 14-16 in Hollywood, Florida, offering her insights on the future. She offers an overview on those insights in this Q&A interview.

Consumers nowadays are spoiled. The ease of communicating in real time via social media has pushed the bar to new heights when it comes to dealing with today’s buyers of goods and services. Retailers and brands who hope to engage them effectively at the point of contact have to make the customer journey easy.

Hudson Group has recognized this and made it the centerpiece of its customer engagement strategy. Ruth Crowley, vice president of merchandise and brand strategy for the retailer, will describe what retailers and brands need to do to succeed in today’s environment during her opening keynote presentation at the Self-Service Innovation Summit, Dec. 14-16 in Hollywood, Florida.

Crowley recently offered an overview of some of the points she plans to address next month during an interview with Kiosk Marketplace and Vending Times. Following are excerpts from that interview.

Q. What do you see as the greatest challenges facing retailers and brands today?

A. Serving the customer and accommodating their needs effectively in a changed retail environment. As retailers, we have to be relevant and relatable for our target customer. The past year has prompted impatience for customers — they can quickly access everything online and if we do not provide a seamless and time-sensitive solution, they will opt out. To continue to gain loyalty, retailers need a clear mission and purposeful outreach to create an enduring and sustainable relationship with customers.

From a more broad industry perspective, the greatest challenge in the coming 12 months is supply chain, including sourcing materials and components, availability of production, access to containers for imports, logistics, shipping and related costs.

Q. This year, Hudson introduced an automated multi-brand retail concept to its stores. How successful has the concept been?

A. Our automated retail concepts are actually beyond our stores within areas that are closer to where travelers dwell in airports. This provides 24/7 shopping access to specialty brands and essentials, and in some cases, allows us to offer brands in locations where we do not have a standalone specialty store.

It is a thoughtful extension of services to customers and stakeholders in airports, and so far so good — retail is always a learning journey. We are taking the learnings and applying them to future development and installation.

Q. What types of merchandise will lead cashierless checkout, and will it become pervasive for all types of merchandise?

A. I don’t think one category drives anything, as retail is so multi-dimensional. I also believe one size does not fit all, as there are many customers who like a traditional in-store experience with a cashier and would still prefer to shop in that environment.

Retailers need to include convenience in the customer journey while also providing a variety of checkout options to serve the needs of all customers.

Technology will also drive the change in checkout options, rather than any product category, with the increasing use of checkout by phone, scan and pay, mobile POS, QR codes and other payment alternatives.

Q. Does the concept address sanitation concerns, and if so, how?

A. Travelers today have a heightened demand for health and safety which we have met with increased cleaning protocols in all of our retail locations. Additionally, the touchscreens on our automated retail units are sealed with anti-microbial shields that reduce germs on the surface.

Q. Does the automated retail concept meet the needs of visually challenged consumers?

A. Our automated retail concepts are ADA compliant.

Q. Have there been any surprises from the automated retail concept?

A. Some categories are more popular than others! Electronics and accessories are strong sellers. We also recently introduced automated retail in JFK Terminal 4 with a Build-A-Bear unit that is performing very well.

I would say there are few real “surprises,” as we were very thoughtful in our approach and have gained many valuable learnings. That said, the back-of-house planning and synchronization of elements like UX, assortments, planograms, supply chain, fulfillment, technology, payment methods, daily maintenance and restocking need to be seamless and are critical to success.

Q. How successful has Hudson’s Just Walkout store (Hudson Nonstop) been?

A. We are in the customer business. In order to realize our full potential as the leading travel experience company in North America, we must continue to elevate the variety of retail solutions we offer our landlords and customers.

We now have two Hudson Nonstop stores using Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology — one in Dallas Love Field Airport and one in Midway International Airport in Chicago. Customers enter Hudson Nonstop using a credit card, pick up their products and quickly exit — avoiding checkout lines. The stores have been very well received by travelers and airports, and we have additional locations in the works.

We view contactless retail concepts like Hudson Nonstop as a vehicle to increase sales and enhance customer service, as we can transition our sales associates from being primarily transaction-focused to more sales-focused.

Hudson will continue to be the “Traveler’s Best Friend” by anticipating customer needs, leveraging technology, and providing best-in-class options in merchandising and retail formats to serve the unique needs of a diverse customer base across markets in an ever-evolving world.

Q. The automated retail store has been available for several years now. Why has it not expanded faster?

A. The pace of growth in retail has been impacted over the past 12-18 months by global events. At the end of the day, the customer will drive what works best for them, and retailers will adapt to fulfill their brand promise and deliver effectively on business objectives — Hudson has successfully done that.

Q. How pervasive will fully automated stores be in the next few years?

A. We will continue to see more automated options and elements within brick-and-mortar, digital and online retail solutions that make shopping more convenient, more efficient and more user-focused to drive the experience. The “experience” leads to an increase in sales and market share, so it is a critical factor in our strategy.

Hudson will also continue to evaluate the proliferation of relevant technology that can be used in our stores (handheld devices including phones, AI, VTO, etc.) and online. A perfect example of this is our new Evolve shop-in-shop concept, which offers the option of either traditional, self-checkout or mobile POS.

Additionally, we will engage with travelers before, during and after their journey through both new and existing channels to provide a seamless customer experience and ultimately drive sales. The integration of elements will blur the lines for retailers and create one 360 experience for the customer.

Q. Facial recognition technology at retail has become controversial and is beginning to become a political issue. Given these concerns, will this technology be part of the retail landscape?

A. Most new technology developments will continue to play a part in retail as they are an integral part of life. The customer can always “opt out” but everyone wants the option and flexibility that best suits their lifestyle.

Q. How can a retailer or a brand that does not use automated retail prepare itself for introducing the technology?

A. I would re-classify this a little to say automation in retail. The customer wants convenience — technology and automation help support that. We have spoken before about “Digital Darwinism” — where the pace of technological advancement and innovation is faster than retailers’ ability to keep up. This would suggest all leaders have to apply activities and investments that specifically enable their strategic priorities and meet their customer objectives. They need to provide an authentic experience for their customers and their stakeholders to drive optimal results.

Customer experience is different from customer service, and it’s even more important than ever as customers have more options and less patience. Customer experience is not an initiative but part of a strategic solution that will help differentiate retailers and businesses for a sustainable future.

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