Clienteling Software and the Future of Omnichannel Shopping: Rallyware Chats with Swarovski’s Anthony Sloan

As 2024 begins after a surprisingly strong holiday season, many are predicting this to be the “year of AI in retail.” Yet the picture is more complex than that. The forces shaping the near future of retail and wholesale are not only technological, with AI and clienteling software, but human – the lingering effects of the pandemic, changes in consumer behavior and psychology, and recessionary trends in the economies of Europe and North America. 

Though AI is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle in a retail industry that must rethink its approach to both eCommerce and brick-and-mortar in the near term. We spoke to Anthony Sloan, Senior VP of Merchandising and Planning at Swarovski, about how the above trends interact, how they are impacting store operations, and what corporations can do to stay innovative and agile in the face of them. In short, how to transform the retail experience to suit the new consumer and drive organic foot traffic with clienteling software as the casual mall shopper becomes less and less relevant.

Below is an edited interview with Anthony, who had a great chat with us on his thoughts on the macro-level present and future of retailing. 

Anthony’s Role at Swarovski

Anthony is situated at the global office for Swarovski, in Switzerland, where the main business functions are conducted for this company with nearly $3b in annual revenue and around 30,000 employees. There, Anthony’s role is merchandising and planning. This encompasses everything related to forecasting, down to distribution in stores: where merchandise goes, what store staff needs to executive their roles, the end-to-end of the product life cycle. Product merchandising – ensuring that Swarovski products are optimally managed, displayed, promoted – this is the beating heart of his work.

Anthony’s View on the Challenges Facing Brick-and-Mortar Retail Stores 

Globally, Anthony says, the central problem is China and new changes in the supply chain. “If we want to be honest about it,” he says, “it’s the global economic downturn in Europe and the West generally, as well. Let’s say we’re not fully in a recession, but it’s a recessionary environment and all the warning signs are there. So that sort of instability is causing concern.” 

Though inflation is slowing, it has not returned to pre-pandemic normalcy, which continues to impact consumer spending. Anthony has seen eCommerce business thrive during the high pandemic years and for some time after, but it has slowed since consumers have become more hesitant, as well as more desirous of a more personalized selling experience. 

Where does retail go from there? In an omnichannel direction, he says, and many experts agree, but what does this really mean? 

Omnichannel and Online-Store Synergy

As Anthony makes clear, online order with in-store pickup – along with many variations on that basic structure – has become increasingly essential. “With cost increases and global supply chain issues, you’ve seen people begin to rethink stores as distribution hubs more than walk-by shopping locations. Online pickup and ship-to-store were very popular options in Q4 of last year.” 

In short, with options like these, customers can combine the ease and convenience of online shopping with the personalized, empathetic selling of in-store transactions. This kind of hybrid sale, he argues, will become more important throughout 2024 and onward, as consumer purchasing power grows following drops in inflation while the recessionary environment remains. Consumer preferences have changed since the pandemic, and stores must keep pace.

“The ‘omni’ approach,” he says, “prioritizes flexibility. You have to have flexibility in terms of your inventory and where you connect with your customers, and how they interact. That’s the customer journey. It’s continuing to change, and we have to remain several steps ahead. Brick and mortar is a difficult space but it’s also a necessary one.”

How Sales and Operations Leaders Can Counteract Inflationary and Recessionary Trends

Store-level clienteling, Anthony says, is becoming more and more important. “For stores with high-shelf items, this has always been an element of what you do, but it’s now becoming more involved, more embedded in everyday operations. Stores have their CRMs, their database of people they reach out to. Products come in and launch, for instance, and you inform customers who might be interested that such-and-such products is now in the store. You’re creating that community connection, that real local feeling.”

We will see more of that, Anthony says. This will more and more be the key reason for people coming in as “the concept of going to the mall and passing by continues to diminish. There needs to be a reason to come, so it can be very local on the store level and on the global level there are different ways to combat it for corporate. One is this global focus on more tailored approaches, more localization if you will. 

“If you look at things like much more flexible inventory solutions, where you have virtual stock in the showroom. The theory of it is not hard, of course: you have iPads and other mobile devices in the stores, you have a presence on customers’ smartphones. But it’s the back end that’s important and that will need to be worked on, making sure that the different systems that allow this flexible setup to exist all talk to each other.”

Anthony calls the notion of virtual stock an “endless aisle.” Every store has its particular inventory, but anything the customer wants from the brand should be accessible somehow. After settling on a specific product through face-to-face retail interactions, the store can order it for the customer and guide them through the experience. “If a customer comes in and has checked what they want, it might not be available at their local store. But if they want to come in and have that interaction, it’s important we be able to facilitate that and help them get what they want at that location.” 

Helping Store Staff “Clientele” 

Of course, store staff must be trained and engaged in order to clientele effectively. This is not a given. How to optimize the frontline to “clientele”?

Anthony emphasizes the importance of introducing clienteling as a new skill set, a way to develop themselves. “Client relationship management is something they’re interested in learning. It keeps the store staff interested. Having modules around that by building rapport and having relationships that are more than just transactional, and the question of how we build up those relationships–that is something we’ve really invested in in training and development. Mid-tier brands are doing quite well, but in fact you do see staff being poached by ‘true luxury.’ Because they’re doing similar jobs there but true luxury can maybe pay a bit more and have that more personalized customer relationship approach. So it’s important for mid-tier brands to develop that approach as well.”

Anthony cites the importance of sorting out commissions under an omnichannel approach. When customers have a face-to-face interaction but then end up ordering the product online, the in-store seller then loses that commission. “If you’re wasting time on a sale in the store but it goes to the online piece, you have to make it financially viable for the staff member. There are different models I’ve seen tried out, though there’s no ‘perfect fit’ yet. It’s complicated. You have to make sure that your remuneration is right for that omnichannel approach, and you have to optimize your training, not just transactionally but in terms of relationship management. It’s probably more a store manager and assistant manager problem. We tend to see a customer relationship manager in each store who manages clienteling and works on that with the other store staff. This is becoming more and more important.”

Emerging Technologies, Like Clienteling Software, Set to Have an Impact on the Store Experience

The role of technology in all this is complicated, Anthony says, because while technology has a growing importance in the product lifecycle, customers are coming in the store for personal interaction – not to talk to a robot.

“Optimization engines, personalization tools for CRM – those technologies will help but won’t impact the store environment too much. I see that technology is helping much more in traffic-driving scenarios, helping catch the customer’s interest in whatever local update we’re doing, new products we’ve got in, et cetera – campaigns like that. 

“So imagine CRM tools that get more and more advanced, there are generative AI options there as well in combination with forecasting algorithms. Those tools that advance getting people through the door and training as well: that’s where the investment will be necessary. But the actual in-store buying experience will have to remain very human, I think.” 

For instance, Anthony says, think about Prada emailing you because you have liked two or three items that will be the focus in their new display, and they’ve got that information through some sort of data collection. This is an example of clienteling software. “I get a more personalized invitation about a pair of shoes I really wanted. It’s going to pique my interest more than just, ‘Come to the Prada store.’ This uses maximal personalization to cut through the noise and create interest. 

“The battle is going to be getting people through the doors and where you’re getting them from. That’s where the next few years will be very interesting. If you really want to make brick-and-mortar work, you have to figure out where that traffic will come from, because it’s not coming as organically anymore. We’re seeing that even with the best of the best.”

The Future Role of eCommerce

Anthony sees a realignment happening in the near future. He argues that the centrality of eCommerce will shrink for some players as society returns to a level of normalcy. “It’s still very discount- and promo-driven, the online space. As brands pull back a bit on discounting and promo approach, you’ll see a leveling out of the share of businesses online in its current format. Where I see eCommerce becoming more important is that the consumer journey for 95% of businesses starts online. That’s not going to change. It’s about using your platform – your website, your partner website – to create a consumer journey that is controlled, but that also leads the customer into the offline sphere.”

This rebalancing should happen soon, Anthony predicts, with the next several years seeing more of an evening out of the share of business between digital and brick-and-mortar spaces. 

Clienteling: The Seeds of a More Democratic Retail Industry

In conclusion, Anthony asserts, the importance of clienteling and clienteling software in the near future cannot be overstated. Though in the past this was seen as “old-world selling,” and the province of luxury brands alone, now it’s becoming more essential among other retailers too. “You expect your local Foot Locker to hit you up if something that you’ve purchased in the last six months gets a new version. That’s how it’s going. Before it took a lot of people and a lot of time, now things like generative AI and some other cool tools are coming to make that more democratized in terms of what companies and what brands can clientele. If you want to keep a real brick-and-mortar experience alive, you have to figure out how to get people in there, how to get them interested. That’s going to evolve quite quickly.” 

In China, even, this has become the status quo since the pandemic. With QVC-style group chats, sellers engage in “e-selling” demonstrations. That encourages people to buy that on the platform or come into the store. “The more of that you do, the more organic traffic you see. There’s great ROI there. It’s something that will grow and the West will get more on board as well.”

In the age of omnichannel, brick-and-mortar and digital technology are deeply intertwined. Request a demo of Rallyware  to see how Performance Enablement tools streamline personalized frontline training and enable them to awe customers with the smart clienteling tools.