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New Virtual Selling Tools Let Retailers Pick Customers’ Minds

One of the hot new trends in retailing that has been accelerated by the pandemic is virtual selling: livestreaming, in-app purchases on social media sites, clienteling software, and conversational sales. Marrying technology, data mining, and video interactions, retailers in the U.S. are catching up to China and the rest of the world at harvesting a rich new source for consumer research: the brain of individual customers.

For example, department store chain Nordstrom announced in March that it is launching a livestream shopping service. The company said it will host programming such as a styling livestream featuring Burberry products, a seasonal trend happy hour, and an interview with British makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury among other things. Nordstrom said customers will be able to shop the fashion products mentioned that are available on Nordstrom’s website and participate in a live chatroom. In an interview with CNBC, a Nordstrom executive said, “There’s so much opportunity for us to get closer to the customer.”

As it is with so much that’s new in retailing, Amazon was ahead of the pack with its launch in 2019 of Amazon Live, likened to a home shopping network. Social media giants like Facebook and Instagram have ramped up in-app purchasing as well. 

Walmart partnered with TikTok on a shoppable live stream experience on the Walmart TikTok channel. Walmart Chief Marketing Officer William White said the event netted seven times more views than anticipated and grew the company’s TikTok followers by 25 percent.

The U.S. has been late to this trend. According to The Drum, a marketing and media news outlet, almost a quarter (23 percent) of UK shoppers are using social media to discover and buy new products. “Increasingly, they are happy buying products from trusted influencers and brands on their favourite social channels.”

Clienteling is the word the retail industry uses to describe using selling software, data on individual customers, and relationship-building activities between store associates and their customers. “Clienteling is about getting to the customer however they want to be gotten to,” consultant Marcie Merriman of EY Consulting told WWD last year. “It could mean if the customer wants to come into the store and they like being in that environment. Or, if they’re in a hotel room and they want a personal stylist to come to them. Clienteling is much more about the company personally getting to where the consumer is, which for a lot of people is shopping at home.”

One of the challenges for retailers that is inherent in such tactics is preparing and training sales associates. What questions should associates be asking? How do they make recommendations? Do they have information and data about what other customers are attracted to? 

How can retailers make sales associates smarter? By making sure they ask the right questions. New platforms need to be developed to collect the Voice of the Customer and then that data and knowledge need to be fed back through the associates so that they know what to say and how to sell.

Virtual selling is huge in China and has been for some time. U.S. retailers will stumble trying to catch up with the rest of the world if their front-line staff aren’t prepared to make the most of being able to understand and pick the customer’s mind.

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