Being a retail customer used to require patience: A passion for standing in line, resilience when told the item you wanted was out of stock, and the kind of determination to hunt the aisles to find the thing you wanted because no one else in the store would. But times have changed in retail, particularly in its technology, which is now providing greater expectations of choice, flexibility and service to put the customer firmly back in the driver’s seat. Today’s consumers want their interactions with retailers to be effortless — and their experience from store to website to mobile device — to be seamless.
This desire for a ‘frictionless’ customer experience has persuaded retailers to become less interested in the workings of the transaction and more interested in the needs of the customer. Technology also allows Barnes & Noble College to understand its customers’ preferences and how exactly they want to shop, says Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College. “By constantly having conversations with our students, we can help tailor exactly how our students like to shop with how we deliver that seamless, frictionless experience to them,” she says. The latest example of the way Barnes & Noble College is trying to do just that was recently front and center at one of the campus bookstores’ busiest times of the year, Spring Rush.
At Chicago’s DePaul University Bookstore, students shopped using a variety of methods this spring. “Our students are tech savvy and will use the College Bookstore app, the bookstore website, or access us through the Campus Connect college system,” explains Store Manager, Carl Grath. For a new generation of consumers, the ability to purchase anytime and anywhere is what drives return customers. “We want to make the entire shopping process as easy as possible for our students,” Grath explains. “By removing all of the obstacles, we can help to make the process as seamless as possible — and if we can give our customers a great experience, they’ll return again and again.” he says.
Automating that whole process would not only make the transaction easier to track, but more importantly, it would provide a quicker and more convenient experience for students. To help with that task, Barnes & Noble College enlisted the help of Chicago-based Rocket Wagon, a digital strategy, engineering and design company. “How we were able to improve on that experience was an example of how we can use technology in a very human way,” explains Rocket Wagon’s Chief Digital Officer, Skylar Roebuck. “We were able to talk to the [store] managers and get an understanding of where some of those pain points existed, particularly at Rush, which gave us an understanding and a perspective of what we needed to build, and why we needed to build it,” he adds.
The solution the Rocket Wagon team developed, in partnership with Barnes & Noble College, provided additional functionality to the College Bookstore app, enabling students to simply point their smartphone at the shelf marker, scan the bar code and automatically order the book online. While quick and convenient, Grath points out the kind of mobile functionality, like that piloted over Spring Rush, only enhances the bookstore. “Providing a positive experience like that actually brings the customer back to us, plus we can capture and communicate to them throughout the year about more than just textbook availability,” he says.
After the initial mobile pilots at DePaul’s downtown Loop and Lincoln Park campuses, the pilot of the new app functionality spread to 25 other stores, and the results of the Spring Rush pilot program were positive. Although Roebuck is already thinking about next steps, he points out that creating meaningful digital customer experiences requires thought. “An important aspect of the app to take note of going forward is always understanding more about the close relationship mobile creates, and how the student’s experience with the application, and within the store, can better inform store processes and the features of the application itself,” he says.
Grath agrees that though the technology can be dazzling, the new mobile functionality speaks more to Barnes & Noble College’s customer commitment. “As a company, we’re always thinking about what’s next, and here we’re looking at just one specific process in the store and what we can do to improve that experience from our customer’s point of view in a pretty sophisticated way.” On a human level, he adds that the app has provided another reason to engage with customers, with an opportunity to be face-to-face at freshman orientations, and day-to-day interactions with parents and students to talk about the new capability. “Merging the latest technology with great customer service is what customers really want — especially college students,” Grath says, “and a great way of taking the friction out of the customer’s bookstore experience.”