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Thu 1 Jun 2017 12:17 PM

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Is this the end of the check-out queue in the Middle East?

Comment: The region has also seen a surge in online shopping – which increases significantly during Ramadan, writes Mark Thomson, director, Retail and Hospitality EMEA, Zebra Technologies.

Is this the end of the check-out queue in the Middle East?

For retailers in the Middle East, the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan also means looking ahead to Eid, the joyous three-day celebration that follows the end of the fast.

For many, it’s also a major shopping period, as families buy gifts and perfumes, choose new clothes, purchase groceries and decorate the home to prepare for the festivities.

According to YouGov research, in Ramadan 93 percent of consumers expect to spend more on household goods, including food and beverages and general groceries. With this surge in shopping, retailers will respond with special Ramadan offers, ensuring they can attract shoppers into the store. Traditionally, this means extended Ramadan shopping hours in malls – as late as 2am or 3am - across the region to accommodate the change in lifestyle.

The region has also seen a surge in online shopping – which increases significantly during Ramadan – as more people choose to shop from their phones, tablets, or laptops for the speed and convenience. And recently, even more options have become available for the regional market, with Amazon’s purchase of souq.com. This may be a sign of more e-commerce growth to come.

In today’s omnichannel world of retailing, the options available to shoppers are multiplying quickly, and they are looking for a fast, convenient and seamless experience. However, this does not mean that all transactions are migrating online. Brick and mortar stores are still experiencing good levels of foot traffic, as customers are increasingly browsing, trying or buying goods in-store as well as online.

But with so many options available, customer patience is at its lowest point – a downside to the wide array of choices today’s shoppers have. Customers are quite happy to go elsewhere if they don’t find what they want, or don’t experience quick and efficient service. Even online, data suggests that a delay of as little one or two seconds when browsing a website can send a potential customer off to a competitor website.

All of which leaves retailers to wonder how to manage and minimise the frustration of the check-out queues in-store.

Who wants to queue?

Customer expectations are at their highest. The bar for instant gratification has been set by Amazon, as well as a handful of innovative retailers who have been more agile, such as Landmark in the UAE with its Shukran loyalty programme, Wi-Fi access in store and those looking to develop a personalised approach to shoppers, in store.

We are seeing the same thing with Waitrose and other retailers in the UK, who offer customers a variety of services, including the ability to select specific products that they would like to receive offers on. It’s a personalised approach that increases customer engagement and enhances the shopping experience.

There have been endless speculations about the death of brick and mortar stores as online shopping continues to rise; however, it is becoming evident that the in-store and online retail worlds are not competing with one another, but instead are working together to create a complete and seamless customer experience.

In-store technology now allows retailers to know who is in-store, while mobile technology enables them to engage with shoppers on a one-to-one basis. The tools are in place for retailers to offer a vastly improved customer experience.

It is imperative retailers focus on doing just that. Otherwise, their customers will find somewhere else to shop, either in-store or online, where the experience is better. It’s that simple.

A core aspect of the customer experience that retailers are currently rethinking is the checkout process.

Today, customers expect a retailer to help us checkout seamlessly, which means that they find queues frustrating – particularly if they have engaged with a staff member to identify the right article of clothing or latest electronic item they wish to purchase.

The checkout process can seem even more tedious when compared with Amazon, for example, which allows customers to checkout with one click online, not to mention in a secure environment.

This needs to be the case in-store as well, where customers would expect the systems to be just as – if not more – secure. The technology to offer this seamless checkout service in a physical store is already available, and being implemented in stores such as Waitrose in the UK.

Retailers and retail banks need to agree on how this can be achieved quickly and efficiently, so they can start offering customers mobile point-of-sales and fast checkout. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing shoppers to online retailers.

With Ramadan fast approaching, retailers would do well to consider other improvements to the checkout process as well, for new shopping options.

The click & collect (C&C) operation is one such example: be sure the C&C area is clearly signposted, and that sales associates are trained to help clients pay and find the in-store pick-up desk with ease. In Europe, click & collect is growing 3 times as fast as home delivery for online shoppers. Inventory management systems and mobile scanners can also be implemented in-store to ensure parcels are identified quickly and handed over to customers quickly and efficiently, reducing their time spent in queue.

The click & collect service is also an excellent way to up-sell and cross-sell, using in-store sales associates to help customers find other items they might need for Ramadan.

Mark Thomson, director, Retail and Hospitality EMEA, Zebra Technologies.

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