Retailers need to focus less on the “shiny new objects” in technology and instead focus on systems and solutions that actually move the needle, said Ratnakar Lavu, Chief Technology Officer for Kohl’s, during a feature stage presentation at the NRF Big Show.
“Some of them are not sexy, but they help us operate and transform the business to be faster and better,” Lavu said. He said machine learning, artificial intelligence and chatbots – for both customer and internal communication – are among the areas his development team is pursuing.
Lavu said Kohl’s is testing chatbots for communicating with customers who have “where’s my order” questions, as well as password resets, one of the most common customer service calls.
Lavu was asked by interviewer Jason Del Rey of Recode how retailers can compete with innovations that take years and cost millions like Amazon Go, where products are tracked as they leave the shelf and charged to a customer’s account. He said the important thing was to make sure that every technology initiative is customer-centric and results in an experience they really want.
“Do we want to take four years on a project to transform the store?” Lavu asked. “No, but we are continually transforming the store experience.” As an example, he said Kohl’s associates have an app with built-in intelligence that helps them determine the optimal method of fulfilling an online order in store.
As a differentiation from Amazon Go, Lavu said the company is launching Kohl’s Pay, a mobile app that lets Kohl’s cardholders combine all their coupons, discounts and points with one scan at checkout. Kohl’s sees it as a way to increase the lifetime value and loyalty of its customers by reducing friction and increasing engagement.
“We are using a lot more analytics and machine learning to make it a more compelling experience,” Lavu said, adding Kohl’s Pay is being piloted at 25 U.S. stores. “Amazon Go is built in a different way. We decided to solve a problem that’s highly relevant to our customers from a payment standpoint, and it’s the fastest way to check out in our environment.”
The company still “has a deep relationship with Apple and Samsung” and will continue to collaborate on their mobile payment platforms, even though those partners can’t determine things like discounts and promotions at the SKU level, Lavu said.
“We’re working to make the store experience seamless, painless and engaging,” Lavu said. “The feedback on (Kohl’s Pay) has been fantastic, and no other retailer is doing this.”
Kohl’s is also working on mobile technology that will help customers more easily navigate the store and find an item faster; that capability is a couple years out, Lavu said.
On the ecommerce side, a recent platform relaunch at Kohl’s enables things like machine learning and pattern recognition to serve up search results based on what product pages someone visited. He said his team has to deliver KPIs like increases in conversion rate to justify the investment. “Anything that doesn’t work well, I challenge the team to do better,” Lavu said.