Why Salesforce’s global retail VP is optimistic about the future for retailers

Artificial intelligence, chatbots, clienteling and better contextual data application are just some of the big steps forward in driving experience-led retail engagement, Shelley Bransten says

Shelley Bransten
Shelley Bransten


No one would doubt it’s been a tough decade for retailers, and many have failed in the face of digital disruption and transformation. But for Salesforce senior VP of retail and consumer goods, Shelley Bransten, the rise of relationship-based engagement is offering up reasons to be increasingly optimistic about the retail market moving forward.

“We’re getting beyond the world of transactions and back to the heart of retail, which is creating relationships with shoppers,” she told attendees at the recent Salesforce Connections event in Chicago. “The shopper is in control and expectations are higher than ever.”

Yet with less than 1 per cent of customer data being looked at in the retail sphere, let alone being realised in engagement and interactions, there is plenty of room for improvement, Bransten said.

“Speed is the currency in this business… but it has often felt like a race to the bottom with endless markdowns, and the Amazon effect,” she continued. “What we have found, however, is that 80 per cent of shoppers will pick experience over just product and services themselves. That gets me optimistic, and that’s what brands who are winning today are doing: Moving from transactions to relationships.”  

Bransten, who built her career working for fashion retailers such as Banana Republic and Gap, caught up with CMO to expand on the reasons for why she’s “shoptimistic” about the omni-channel retail sector, and share her advice on how retailers harness customer experience for success.

During your presentation, you suggested now is the time to “get back to the heart of retail”. What do you mean by that?

Shelley Bransten (SB): The heart of retail is relationships with customers; helping them and making it easier for them to shop. I don’t think the problem is just Amazon here; what I think Amazon has done is shine a light on what has been missing for a while in retail, which is great experience. This is about enabling people.

A great experience isn’t necessarily a dramatic one. It can mean I get in and out of a store quickly because I find what I need, or because what I was looking for is in stock. Or if I have a coupon, it’s easily accessible and I don’t feel frustrated when I leave that I had a coupon but didn’t use it.

I’m ‘shoptimistic’ because I’m seeing some brands use next-generation technologies to get back to the business of having great customer experience and build great relationships with their customers.

When digital came in as a commerce capability initially, it met rational needs such as efficient access to goods. Can digital help us meet a consumer’s emotional needs?

When digital is good, you don’t even know it’s there. The same is true around AI [artificial intelligence]. Look at Uber – you don’t love Uber because you think it offers great AI. You like Uber because it’s easy to get a car, it’s easy to get to where you want to go, and the payment is all already in there. Retail didn’t do that for a long time, and there was so much complexity. A lot of retailers took their stuff and put it online without really thinking about the context of the shopper as they’re going online, or what form factor makes it easier to shop. Sometimes consumers on their mobile phone want to be inspired; some just want to buy something and be done.

I think we plopped up websites, converted them to the phone, but we didn’t understand the context of the consumer and that person. This is where the technology is really helping. I also think there’s a widening divide between those making the smart investments, and those simply chasing shiny objects that don’t really solve a customer problem.

You mentioned only 1 per cent of data being used to improve experiences in retail today. That’s a massive gap – why is this still the case?

Part of it is organisations don’t know how to bring it all together. They also don’t know what data matters. I’d be remiss to say we know exactly what data matters too. The first thing to do is bring it together so you can see your customers. Some organisations can have 39 different front-end systems in play – that’s paralysing.

Retailers also need to harness more of a test-and-learn mentality. As an industry, retail has been so focused on the big reveal and launch of the season. Whereas in the technology space it’s about failing fast and trying new things. And you’re rewarded for that.

I don’t think such incentive structures have existed in retail. I still spend a lot of time with customers as an internal champion for them in leading transformation. It’s the cultural piece that’s really hard.

Are there ways of using data that really bump up retail’s chances of success?

Definitely. Using data within ecommerce to drive predictive search and sort pays you back. In the most recent holiday period across our platform, 7 per cent of transactions were using AI and those delivered 27 per cent of revenue. It’s a no-brainer.

Machine learning via bots is also making a big difference to retailers. In general, I’ve been surprised how much investment people are making to experiment with chatbots in their contact centres. I think to some extent it’s because it’s more detached from finishing a transaction. Having a bot handle those simple cases is paying dividends for our customers.

Related: What not to do when building chatbots and voice-based brand interactions

On the marketing side, we’re also going to see more success come from trigger-based journeys and real-time interaction. That’s going to start to relieve marketers from having to sit in the room and whiteboard out what the customer journey should look like.

It’s one thing to get insights, it’s another to push them to the frontline and action them. In a physical retail environment, how do you ensure  staff access enough intelligence to do a better job of experience?

An area we’re seeing progress is with luxury brand retail customers growing their ‘clienteling’ approach. For example, if you walk into a Louis Vuitton store, having the sales associate know how valuable you are, what you’ve bought previously and able to offer one recommendation on what you’re looking for, is valuable. It’s not about lots of options – the associate is not there to look at their phone, they’re there to service you.

Bricks-and-mortar stores have not really been penetrated by digital yet. Online and pick-up in-store is great, but that’s a beginning point. I do think we’ll see growing adopting of clienteling applications that will help the store associate know customers better and make recommendations or locate items, or make checkout easier being the winners. And they’re coming.

Ralph Lauren has invested in clienteling in its flagship stores to deliver more personalised experiences in-store. For example, associates know what you’ve looked at before, where you are in the loyalty schema and will deliver different kinds of premium services based on  where you are in that hierarchy.

What are retailers still missing to get to that point?

Everyone is marching off in their separate silos – it’s what the marketing department is doing versus digital and ecommerce or in-store teams. These functions are coming together more and more, but that has a long way to go. You may have a decent email and Web experience, but you enter a store and it’s completely separate. This is a real functional challenge. You need to think about the customer first, then work backwards.

What emerging technologies can help lessen this gap or particularly excite you?

Retailers have been in the midst of difficult challenge de-investing in their physical stores as they invested in digital, instead of seeing it as the same customer just crossing both. I get really excited working with customers when they’re making investments against their store associates not only for customer-facing experiences, but also training enablement and collaboration. Giving them the tools to do their jobs makes a big difference. AI has been covered incredibly well, but AI in-store to help store associates deliver better experiences is exciting.

Read more: The impact of AI on 4 key brands: CXO panel

One major cosmetic brand customer invested a lot in a personalised make-up app, so consumers could get exactly the right cover-up. You know what? When a woman is sitting there talking to another woman, they don’t want to look at an app, they want to ask the assistant what looks better on them.

There’s a place for technology. When you figure what looks better in-store, you should be able to sell it straight away, put your finger down and the sale is done. But augmented reality isn’t going to solve all human interactions. I think we chased a lot of shiny objects.

There a little bit of boiling the ocean too. My job is to represent Salesforce in this industry and help us sell products. But a lot of times I’m saying let’s take it one step at a time, solve one problem, then another.

Up next: The future for the customer loyalty program, plus what retailers should be doing to address voice

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