Boots UK gives associates real-time company-wide insight

This article was published in the September 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

For many consumers, deciding whether to shop online or in a physical store means weighing the advantages of each. Online shoppers can draw on a wealth of information; those shopping in stores can see and feel the products, and tap into the insights of sales associates.

A new mobile app from IBM and Apple aims to meld features from both to create a more compelling shopping experience. Boots UK, a leading health and beauty retailer in the United Kingdom, implemented Sales Assist across its more than 2,500 stores this spring “as part of a multi-year retail transformation that enhances the customer shopping experience,” says Robin Phillips, director of omnichannel and development. Mobility is a key component of this effort.

Sales Assist is one of more than 100 apps offered by IBM geared to businesses in retailing, healthcare, banking and a dozen other industries. “We’re delivering apps that are specifically tailored to professions so they can do their jobs better,” says Dan Bailey, IBM U.K.’s mobile business director.

The app loads detailed product information, promotional offers and customer reviews.

Sales Assist can provide data to store employees in real time, and use analytics to provide insight. Store associates can use the voice-to-text feature to say, “This customer is looking for shampoo,” and the app will load all the shampoos carried in the store, including detailed product information, promotional offers and customer reviews.

If the store is out of a particular product, sales associates can use the app to find nearby stores that have it, or offer to ship it to customers’ homes. “It empowers the employee,” Bailey says, and does so in a way that’s simple to use and easy to learn.

Tailored functionality

Putting timely, relevant information in the hands of store associates means an easier and simpler shopping experience for customers at Boots, Phillips says. They can quickly address customer questions about products and stock levels to provide a better and more personal in-store experience.

Phillips identified several reasons Boots partnered with IBM for this initiative. “The design process for IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps is unique. We were able to include our store colleagues in workshops to share their on-the-job challenges, and have those interpreted by IBM experts.” The result was a true collaboration between IBM, Apple and Boots in creating an app that delivers a mobile experience specifically tailored for customers’ — and employees’ — needs.

Boots has worked with IBM on various projects and was confident in their knowledge of the retail industry, Phillips says. For this project, IBM added its expertise in analytics and enterprise systems, ensuring the new app would “integrate well with our existing infrastructure and investments,” he says.

To inform the development process, Boots organized focus groups and conducted usability testing with sales associates who worked within different store formats. Phillips says a sales clerk’s participation was vital in the overall design and development of Sales Assist: Vickie Ward joined focus group sessions in the United Kingdom, and later provided feedback to IBM designers and developers and the Boots Proposition team in a design workshop.

“The result is an app that is tailored to meet Vickie and her colleagues’ needs with functionality that will accelerate their tasks and boost productivity, while delivering a smooth and simple app experience,” he says.

One of the key features of the app is the information button, which makes data on each product from quickly and readily accessible from the iPad used by sales associates. Previously, if a customer asked for more product information, associates had to rely on the information printed on the box.

The information allows sales associates to provide a more consultative sales process, whether they’re helping customers determine which lipstick colors work best with their skin tones or which furnishings will best fit their homes’ floor plans. “We’re applying what we’re learning to consultative sales” in general, Bailey says.

While Boots has thousands of stores, Sales Assist can improve the performance of retailers of any size, Bailey says. “It’s geared to any retailer that wants to transform its stores and employees for a mobile workforce.”

Interactive e-learning

Boots began collaborating with IBM on the app last April. A pilot was quickly up and running, but the team continued to tweak the design in an effort to ensure it met the goals of employee and customer improvements. The company began rolling out Sales Assist in April; in June, Boots became the first retailer in the world to fully deploy the app across its stores, using IBM Bluemix to connect Sales Assist with existing company applications, data and analytics.

Implementation often requires tapping into a retailer’s e-commerce, inventory and other store systems, Bailey says, noting the exact integrations will vary by customer.

Only minimal employee training was required at Boots. “The app is very intuitive,” Phillips says. Boots provided an interactive e-learning module, as well as a video and print materials.

Boots isn’t disclosing the investment it made in the system, although Phillips says the company already had 3,700 iPads in its stores that now are enhanced with Sales Assist.

Given the newness of the system, Boots hasn’t yet been able to quantify its benefits, but Phillips says feedback has been positive and promising.

“Sales Assist has eased looking up products and placing larger orders for ‘order and collect.’”

Robin Phillips
Boots UK

“Comments from colleagues tell us that Sales Assist has eased looking up products and placing larger orders for ‘order and collect,’ which allows customers to buy online and pick up in store,” he says. Sales Assist also should increase participation in in-store ordering, something Phillips calls a major contributor to Boots’ three-year omnichannel growth plan.

The capabilities provided through Sales Assist are likely to grow as well. “We’re always working with our clients to customize apps based on their needs,” Bailey says. “As organizations see a need to further evolve apps, we will work with clients to apply additional functions, such as payment capabilities.”

The Sales Assist rollout is just one facet of Boots’ plan to build an even better organization, Phillips says.

“Our current strategy will see investment focused on ensuring that Boots continues to serve communities through its store network as a true omnichannel retailer and healthcare provider,” he says. “We want to make it easier and simpler for customers to get the products they need to help them and their families feel good.”