Late in the afternoon of the last day of NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president for global industries, clients, platforms and blockchain with IBM, moderated a discussion of the role of trust in the customer experience — its importance, and how it might be enhanced. Most retail CEOs, van Kralingen said, now believe the quality of customer experience will be more critical for the long-term sustainability of their businesses than product.
And an essential underpinning of the customer experience, she noted, is trust. Engagement rests on trust. “Try to remember what your feelings were the first time you really, deeply, trusted someone,” van Kralingen said. “I’d say you felt really understood. You felt really supported. You felt that person or that group had your back. You felt like they challenged you and did what was good for you. You trusted their bona fides and their intentions.”
Those, she went on to say, are the raw ingredients of trust. “Those raw ingredients can be massively enhanced by technologies — but only if you, as leaders, have the courage to use them in a trustworthy way.”
With that she introduced Cyril Bourgois, chief strategy, digital and innovation officer with Groupe Casino, a French retailer that is also active in Latin America. The company is active in experimenting with artificial intelligence, as exemplified by its new Le Quatre Casino in Paris. The three-floor store is open around the clock, with grocery products in the basement, a bar, terrace and gourmet corner on the ground floor and a co-working showroom space on the floor above.
The goal, he said, was to create a hybrid space where customers could spend some time, have something to eat and do some shopping. The store is full of digital tools such as a scan-and-go application that allows customers to self-scan products, pay via app and leave through an exit gate.
“Most important, we invest in staff in the store to assist and guide our customers,” Bourgois said. “If we want to keep our customers coming to the store, we need to give them a better quality of experience than they can obtain online, and human contact is the key way to do this.”
Following her conversation with Bourgois, van Kralingen introduced Mark Hanna, chief marketing officer of Richline Group Inc., and Leanne Kemp, CEO of Everledger. Richline is known as the foremost manufacturer, distributor and marketer of jewelry, gemstones and precious metals in the United States. Everledger is a London-based technology company that has developed and is marketing a computerized replacement for the paper trail traditionally used to establish provenance in the diamond industry.
Both Kemp and Hanna noted complex trust issues peculiar to the jewelry trade, particularly regarding diamonds, among them counterfeiting, theft, substitution and mining practices that do damage both environmental and human. To establish trust, it is necessary to establish provenance: to be able to show where a gem came from and how it changed hands along the way.
To establish a trustworthy provenance, both firms rely heavily on blockchain, a database structure that allows multiple ownership while preventing record falsification. Once an item has been entered, it cannot be amended without the consent of all the other participants in the blockchain.
“Blockchain is our verification that we’re dealing with responsible people through every step of our supply chain,” Hanna said. “Blockchain documentation is going to make a substantial difference in what people really do trust, and most important what they can research and understand.”
It is a young and still somewhat hard-to-handle technology, and some basic problems remain, including interoperability: There is currently no assurance that one blockchain will be able to talk to another blockchain. Difficulties aside, both companies — and IBM, which is highly active in the area — believe the technology makes an enormous difference in the jewelry industry, among others.
“The collective nature of this data could actually provide for an entirely new value construct,” Kemp said, “where the consumer is asking themselves, ‘Can I shop here, or no?’ No longer can a company that’s 100 years old just rely on the power of its brand or the sign that hangs above the front door. People want to know more. They’re demanding to know more, and they deserve to be shown the truth.”