Chris McShane, Managing Director of Halfords Mobile Experts and President of its new field service software business Avayler, believes that retailers are not at a crossroads of digital vs. physical. Instead, the road to the future lies in a blending of the ways. For example, even Amazon is building brick and mortar stores across the U.S. and UK. He has witnessed first-hand how Halfords has used technology to transform itself into a service-oriented operation and provides a roadmap for organizations looking to transform their own product offerings into the delivery of service-based outcomes.

An increase in pure-play digital competitors in the retail space has been eroding profitability for traditional retailers for some years now.

Do what digital-only retailers can’t do – seize the moment where physical meets digital

Even before COVID-19, customers were becoming more trusting of purchasing products and services online. And the pandemic certainly accelerated consumer trust in purchasing online, with Bazaarvoice stats showing that globally, 49% of consumers shop online; more now than they did pre-COVID.

So, should retailers wait and yet again fall victim to changing market circumstances? Should they wait for a turnaround in fortunes which might never happen? Retailers need to shift strategies. Bricks and mortar retailers need to work out how to take these products and services direct to the customer, rather than waiting for them to walk through the door; remember the BRC footfall report.

Retailers need to go out and meet their customers at all possible touchpoints, many of which will involve increasingly digital interactions. This means retailers now need to seriously look at the services they provide. Do they have specific product expertise which means they can fit parts or repair? Do they have skilled technicians with extensive training, knowledge and experience on certain products and services?

Practice what you preach

At Halfords, we have been tracking the changing retail landscape for some time. Our relatively recent two- to three-year strategy has been shaped around a shift from solely being a retail business to overall service provision and B2B services.

Alongside over 400 retail stores, Halfords now operates 350+ garages and, over the past 18 months, has been expanding its fleet of consumer and commercial mobile repair vans from eight to 350. These are used to deliver services to consumers at home as well as commercial customers, from replacing a flat tire to providing on-site motor services.

This has meant looking at how Halfords could make itself an omnichannel business, offering the most convenient options for our customers, whether in-store, at home or online.

Using technology to drive strategic change means knowing your business metrics

The company leadership team worked together on how to use technology to provide services. Their only caveat was that as our technicians operate in a highly regulated industry, such as the compliance regulations for motor repairs and required for MOT tests, recording of all activities had to be prioritized.

Halfords was one of the first retailers to take action in such a strategy shift. It already has its own end-to-end service platform, Avayler, which tracks the skills level of a technician, work hours and the work undertaken. This data was essential to being able to develop their service offering. By understanding how efficiently our colleagues work, we were able to fuel the system with these efficiencies and make sure our service offering had the data that enabled us to understand just how long it takes to complete a job.

Technicians on the job need to be product and tech savvy

From a customer perspective, the software also uses the information captured to keep customers informed on the progress of their service job. The system tracks every customer interaction, from booking to final service delivery. This includes customer feedback. For example, with an MoT, a technician uses a tablet to record test results. They are then able to take photo and video footage of the car and send it straight to the customer.

The Avayler platform now manages more than 70,000 services per week. The Halfords Mobile Expert van operation, which has a 4.8/5 Trustpilot rating from nearly 200,000 reviews, has seen a 70% increase in job productivity and more than 200% increase in utilization since first introducing the platform, demonstrating the link between digitally empowered colleagues, better customer satisfaction and profitability.

The roadmap to business transformation

According to Research and Markets, the retail software market reflected a slight expansion in 2020 with a significant uptick and recovery in 2021. The report listed three key drivers for this expansion: retail in emerging economies is growing, enterprise retailers are re-architecting their systems to support Unified Commerce (systems that enable the procurement, sale and delivery of merchandise independent of the channel), and the rise of cloud computing along with its cost efficiencies.

Having been through this retail strategy and business software transformation with Halfords and the launch of the Avayler platform-as-a-service offering to other retailers, there are three areas in which McShane would recommend retailers make strategic changes:

  1. Align technology with the customer journey. This varies depending on the product you are serving. Technology will be the primary driver to get retailers to where they need to be. But this technology should map the customer journey. Will you be providing a booking and appointment functionality, and does this span in-store, online or telephone bookings? How will you make sure customers are matched to the correct technician to ensure optimum service delivery? How will you keep them posted about job completion?
  2. Build a technology roadmap. Remember retail is not at a crossroads; the future is a blending of the ways. A strategy shift like this is not a short-term fix. With technology underpinning this change in business, direction, solution selection and roll-out should be top of mind. Technology should not only support business operations at the current moment, but support an increasingly hybrid physical and digital retail presence going forward. Remember, even one of the world’s biggest online retailers, Amazon, is opening brick and mortar shops across the U.S. and UK.
  3. Look for relevant software based on proven metrics to ensure rapid transformation. Re-architecting current or designing new end-to-end software in-house can add significant time and expense to any strategic shift. This is where third-party solutions, such as Avayler, offer software support across digital and physical channels while balancing time and cost investment from the retailer in question.

Omnichannel expectations remain high in a service-oriented sector

The retail industry remains on a recovery trail, but as footfall begins to moderately rebound, more consumers than ever are looking for a smooth blend of physical and digital interactions. Listen to your customers. The retail world is changing, and this involves a move toward digital channels and mobile service provisions. At the same time, customers expect a CX-led infrastructure, whether inside or outside of the physical store, at every stage of their interaction with a retailer.

This is why organizations should prioritize a hybrid model spanning physical and digital to account for the mindset of the customer and match the customer journey as closely as possible.

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