What Will The Customer Experience Look Like In 2020?

Mark de Bruijn

We are living in an age in which retail chains are going bust by the score, which means the need for an optimal customer experience is clearer than ever. Developing at breakneck speed, modern technology offers many opportunities to further enrich the experience. But what will the customer experience look like, say, four years from now?

Digital assistants everywhere, but the human touch retains value

Siri and Cortana are examples of the digital assistants we know now: nice little smartphone tools that amuse us with funny conversations and the occasional surprising answer. In short: an entertaining waste of time. However, digital assistants will evolve considerably in the near future. They will offer truly useful conversations and help us make informed choices. Some web shops are already experimenting with chatbots and wizards that attempt to offer helpful advice. By 2020, these systems will have matured and offer real and useful advice based on targeted open and closed questioning.

They will also become a staple in brick-and-mortar shops. One good example of where this technology is heading is Robot Pepper. This physical robot is able to start a conversation and—assuming it is programmed to do so—help you find and purchase the products that best meet your needs. By 2020, such robots will be taking part in advisory roles previously performed by humans.

I am convinced humans will always be needed, but their role will change. Robots will take care of basic customer care, while humans will remain indispensable for more advanced tasks that require a human touch. (Consider the many examples of organizations that have subjected too many of their customer care services to automation.)

Also, well-functioning self-service facilities will be indispensable by 2020. This includes self-service portals or active user communities where customers can ask questions.

Interactive shops make shopping districts more attractive

In 2020, brick-and-mortar stores will need to think more strategically about their relevance. The good news is that technology offers countless opportunities to boost the shopping experience. In 2020, the physical shopping experience will be transformed thanks to sensors, touch screens, and beacons—the only hurdle is creativity. That is a good thing, because shopping should be sexy.

Let’s consider, for example, a sneaker store. The moment a customer passes the store, he will get a personalized deal offer on his smartphone: The newest addition to his favorite line of sneakers is available with a 20 percent discount, and it is in stock at this store. Once inside, he explains to the digital assistant that he is looking for a sneaker suitable for a novice runner, and immediately, some of the shelves light up.

When he picks up one of the sneakers, a video on a large screen explains the shoe’s unique features. When fitting the sneaker, beamers project walking exercises on the shop floor to test some of its features. Finally, the mirror uses augmented reality to show the customer how different colors and other varieties would look on him.

Hyper-individualization brings product and shopping experience closer to the consumer

Stores and brands will collect increasing amounts of customer data in 2020, enabling them to generate detailed profiles based on a customer’s past purchases and the data they submit. Moreover, the Internet of Things will reveal important lessons about consumer behavior. Products will be equipped with sensors, generating information on which features are—and are not—successful. Brands can also advise individual customers about timely replacements, for example.

How will this play out in practice? In the interest of simplicity, let’s stick to the sneaker store. Customers who opt to have their walking patterns, soles, and weight measured can get advice on the footwear that best suits their needs, both in the physical store and online. Because the account of the sneaker store is linked to a fitness platform, the customer’s fitness level becomes a personal attribute.

The customer still controls the details they want to share. Privacy will remain an important topic in 2020, and the most successful companies will respect it.

Smartphone: a powerful “second screen”

Smartphones have become indispensable for most of us. We wake up with them and go to sleep with them. Mobile applications must work smoothly and be optimized for small screens, and should never feel like an impediment. An unpleasant mobile experience is unacceptable to consumers, and for good reason.

In 2020 the smartphone will be a very useful tool for retailers to further enrich customer experience in brick-and-mortar stores. Not only can customers get more product information by simply scanning its label, they can also find product reviews, information on related products, personalized advice, and perhaps even pricing history, using links with independent online comparison tools.

Supermarkets can also profit from smartphone apps. Not only can customers quickly create shopping lists at home, but in 2020 apps will also show the right picking order based on the layout of the store. It will also give personalized advice for additional products and availability information on alternative products in case one is unavailable.

Virtual reality offers a new home shopping experience

Virtual reality headsets will have a definitive presence in the living room in 2020. Consumers will use them for gaming as well as home shopping sessions, walking through virtual stores from the comfort of their couch. Retailers will enjoy the traditional advantages of brick-and-mortar stores in an online setting: the element of surprise, the ability to steer to impulse buying, and strategic product placement.

A digital setting also offers a unique feature that is not available for brick-and-mortar stores: The store’s layout and even the inventory can be fully customized to the preferences and habits of individual customers.

A new level of delivery

People who like to shop from the comfort of home still want to get their products as soon as possible. Today, web shops with even the tightest logistical operations need at least two days to close the delivery. In 2020, two days will be nothing special—by then we will have many more delivery options, and returning packages will be much easier than it is today.

A number of experiments with drones show potential, and perhaps drones will be able to pick up returns as well. This would require changes in law and regulations, however. Another exciting development: parcel pick-up at railway stations. By 2020, these parcel pickup stations will be much more widely available.

The customer at the center of the product lifecycle

Currently, the customer usually exists at the end of a product’s life cycle. However, by 2020, “crowdsourced design” will be an increasingly common approach to product life cycles. In this approach, the customer is actively involved in product design, variations, and choice. This enables producers to capitalize on customer creativity and wisdom, which results in products that meet specific target audience requirements. One example is Tesco, which actively involved  customers in the development of a new wine.

By 2020, customer and brand will be more closely aligned than ever before. Thanks to modern technology, customers will be able to give instant feedback, be involved in design, and choose different product variants, while at the same time the Internet of Things provides insight in actual use so companies can improve products more quickly and efficiently.

Of course, predicting the future is never a sure thing. But one thing is absolutely clear: Enterprises that know their customers best—and that map the customer adventure most effectively—will prevail.