The entrepreneur behind a new shop-by-appointment booking system being adopted by prominent Australian retailers and shopping centres says this new data-fuelled approach to retail will far outlast the immediate need to manage the number of customers visiting stores.
Dean Cherny is the founder of SocialQ, an online booking and management system that allows retailers to manage a virtual queue of shoppers and offer click-and-collect services.
The platform launched in early-June, but has gained traction this week as retailers across Melbourne reopen their doors under strict density and social distancing requirements.
But beyond the obvious benefits of managing customer numbers as businesses take steps back towards normal trading conditions, Cherny says this kind of technology will eventually give bricks-and-mortar retailers the ability to not only know who is coming into their store, but customise their offering to that shopper too.
“We see it as a long-term change,” he tells SmartCompany.
“It’s the level of service retail is going to need to give to distinguish from shopping online.”
Retailers, shopping centres get on board
Cherny and his team of four have been working closely with Kmart, which used SocialQ to manage its click-and-collect service from 40 Victorian stores during the state’s second lockdown. In one month alone, more than 300,000 click-and-collect appointments were made.
This week, the discount department store switched on the booking platform for in-store visits to its Melbourne stores, and by 5.30am on Wednesday morning, 45,000 bookings had been made, causing some frustration among shoppers.
For shoppers, using SocialQ involves registering online and selecting the time they would like to visit the store.
They then receive a text message to confirm their booking, which they present to a staff member when they arrive.
It’s not just Kmart that has implemented the SocialQ system, or retailers in Victoria for that matter.
The SocialQ team is working with some of the country’s most well-known retail chains, including Target, JB Hi-Fi, Just Group, Cotton On, The Athlete’s Foot and Country Road.
The almost five-month-old business has also partnered with shopping centres Vicinity Centres and GPT, and notes Westfield and Stockland are set to come on board soon too.
The future of shopping is data
For shopping centres, the partnerships involve subsidising the cost of using SocialQ for their retail tenants, in exchange for access to real-time, anonymised data about how many customers are in their centres at any time, and how many are waiting in queues.
Likewise, retailers that use the SocialQ platform can also gain insight into how and when shoppers want to visit their stores, as well as use the platform for contract tracing purposes.
It’s this data that is central to the SocialQ value proposition, and why Cherny says platforms like his will still be around, even when social distancing and density rules are no longer required.
“When people book in advance, they spend, on average, four times as much as a walk-in,” he says.
“If retailers are able to move into helping customers more in advance, they’ll get a better return on investment.
“That’s the long-term vision for the business.”
Cherny, who is also the founder of former Smart50 finalist Marketing Melodies and storePlay, says the inspiration for SocialQ came, in part, from his own frustrations at having to wait in a queue as a shopper. At the same time, he’s observed how luxury retail brands have been taking advantage of customers booking appointments, and then spending big, for some time.
“We almost want to democratise that, so other brands can know who’s coming into their stores in advance,” he says.
“That’s incredibly powerful. They’ve not had that before.”
The door is then open for retailers to link their booking service to their customer relationship management (CRM) platforms to truly customise a shopping experience, he says.
If, for example, a clothing retailer knows their next customer has previously bought a size small shirt, they can have a selection of items in the same size ready to show them when they arrive.
Similarly, retailers could use such technology to manage bookings for VIP shopping experiences, or in sectors that require one-on-one selling, to ensure each customer gets access to the right salesperson.
And come November, SocialQ plans to roll out a feature that will allow shoppers to plan their shopping trips by making multiple bookings with retailers in the same centre.
For shoppers, the goal is to create a seamless shopping experience. For retailers and shopping centres, it’s about managing peak shopping times and to potentially “flatten” the off-peak times too.
The appetite for creating these kinds of retail experiences is there, says Cherny, who has been working closely with Kmart, JB HiFi and Accent Group to understand what features would be most valuable, and to make sure there is “really good product-market fit”.
But while Cherny says some Victorian retailers have been planning for their reopening for some time, and thinking about the technology solutions they may need, he was still fielding enquiries from new retailers on Wednesday.
There are opportunities in the hospitality sector too, he says, suggesting pubs and bars, in particular, may find themselves in need of ways to manage the flow of patrons wanting to secure tables.
While there are a number of new contract tracing options now available to hospitality venues, and programs such as OpenTable offer booking services, Cherny says SocialQ is the first of its kind to combine these features with retail-focused services such as click-and-collect.
And the founder is clear: this is not just a flash in the pan.
“We want to make sure our clients understand the long-term opportunity,” he says.
“It’s not just a little puppy dog for Christmas.”