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The Future of Personalised Retail relies on Biometrics - but few at RBTE 2016 know yet

 10th Mar 2016

RBTE 2016 Olympia


Retail Industry leaders and suppliers at Retail Business Technology Expo (RBTE 2016) have over the last two days been debating the future of the industry and exploring how to best tackle their most challenging issues. The highlight of the show was the Panel Discussion on Innovation in Retail with retail industry leaders1. The challenges of managing retail innovation, becoming customer centric and the role of digital were debated. The value of ‘Bricks and Clicks’ strategies rather than single channel (e.g versus online shopping only comparison) is clear for large organisations, with greater opportunities for customer service, value creation and thus profit in-store than is possible with highly competitive virtual shopping.

However, this creates what was agreed as the biggest challenge facing retailers today:  The first time customers identify themselves in-store is often at the check-out - too late to materially alter behaviours.

The importance of seamless Omni-Channel interaction is evident in RBTE’s show theme, where consumers can switch between engagement mechanisms (such as online self-service, call centre assisted, mobile and in-store) and their associated preferred media types (electronic and physical) as if all part of one logical purchase or service process. Currently customer journeys are frustrating, full of repetition, unwanted and time-consuming identity provision, and/or the lack of understanding one’s breadth of current interactions and needs. Biometrics, as things we have, rather than things we remember or carry with us, present capabilities to be at the cornerstone of convenient identity provision. But what are we prepared to share, how, with whom and in what circumstances?

The answers to these have not been considered by most Retailers today. Many appear unaware of the potential of biometrics by the near-blank replies received to a question on this.

Icon UK sees a future with multi-modal biometrics at the core of personalised service, driven by customer choice, changeable at a whim, context appropriate and secure. An example future customer journey might include:

  • Initial response to online or posted marketing materials with a call to a contact centres. Here Voice Biometrics which can automatically recognise individuals from natural speech, will be a welcome replacement for lengthy repetitions experienced today of known facts and details before the actual call content can progress. With an item selected, a store collection is arranged in preference to a home delivery.

  • Once the customer enters a store, they may be identified on a voluntary basis by their smartphones or even facial recognition in return for individually tailored offers of value or queue-busting. This is known to often encourage additional unscheduled in store purchases as part of a feel-good enhanced experience.

  • And when the consumer wants to commit to something non-trivial (financial, medical, larger value, etc.), they might use a handwritten signature with a stylus on any number of electronic devices to not only legally approve the agreement but also have their identity confirmed in real-time by automated software that detects human rhythm and pressure in seconds.

Such biometrics are more secure than current alternatives when correctly implemented and can be used online or remotely subsequently for additional service provision. The best ones like Voice and Biometric Signature dynamically map individuals uniquely to their known variable patterns, rather than using static measures (like a fingerprint or signature image) or the fast disappearing password and pin. They also do this in the background, with the customer informed but not interrupted.

Most of the technology to do this is available today and innovators are utilising this. First Direct Bank are introducing Voice recognition, Tesco’s One Stop have installed smartphone iBeacons and Carphone Warehouse are benefitting from biometric signatures with faster on-boarding, service and reduced fraud. As was pointed out by Dharmash, "Disruptive Innovation needs to be shown to customers in order for them to understand it". If they like it, or better love it, competitive differentiation is achieved.

Personalised Customer Loyalty and Recognition will revolutionise the way we shop. Biometrics embedded in Omni-Channel experiences with customer choice of multiple methods of revealing identity is the next big thing. The benefits will attract consumers to participate in a fair exchange, their information for enhanced personalised value, where every consumer gets a different offer and attentive service once their data is known. Winners in this competitive race will enable a common brand identity to be promoted in an appropriate manner, correctly formatted for the channel in question, firstly for the customer’s perspective and then for their own.

Behind the scenes a total overhaul may be required. In the race, many retailers will fail, unable to change their processes, technology or both. A lot of consolidation is expected – and for some retailers their core asset value will be driven in future not only from their store assets but more from their systems of customer understanding, recognition and engagement.


Chris Jones is CEO of Icon UK, a specialist in Document and Identity Management solutions.


1   Panel members:

Simon Roberts, President of Boots & Exec VP of Walgreens Boots Alliance;

Luke Jensen, former Sainsbury's Group Development & Strategy Dir;

Richard Woolf, Javelin Group COO (biggest UK omni-channel consultancy, now sold to Accenture);

Dharmash Mistry, CEO/co-Founder Blow (Beauty to you; ex-Balderton Capital Private Equity board).

Moderator: Stephen Robertson (ex-Marketing Director B&Q & former DG - British Retail Consortium)


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