Isabel Rudolf-Staubach is Head of Innovation and CX at METRO AG. She creates innovation for METRO’s core business, always placing the customer needs and wishes in the centre of new inventions. Her focus lies on seamless and digitalised customer journeys, immersive technologies and sustainability within METRO innovations.
Together with METRONOM, the METRO software company, Isabel is breaking new ground with digital solutions such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and IoT technology in order to optimise the shopping experience of METRO customers.
Before joining METRO, Isabel has worked within the Innovation and Design department of Deutsche Telekom AG.
We talked to Isabel about trends and innovation in wholesale stores, design thinking and developing ideal customer experience for restaurateurs and professional food customers.
How do you help METRO stores find innovative solutions?
Our cooperation with the stores usually starts when MCC countries reach out to the METRO AG Store Federation with their customers’ pain points.
We evaluate the situation, come up with a few creative solutions and present them to the countries. Based on the solutions, we conduct a workshop, identify what we want to learn, establish and develop and eventually set up a project.
Several departments are involved in this process: METRO AG, the respective METRO country employees as well as our technical department METRONOM. We usually find an external supplier for digital technology. It can be a local IT company that belongs to the German Startups Association (BVDS e.V.) or a start-up retail solution from our partner programme Metro Accelerator powered by Techstars.
Once all the parties agree on the goal, the content and technical details of the project, we run an early stage pilot to get a proof of concept, understand the technical feasibility and watch actual customers interact with our concept.
Applying Design Thinking methodology, we co-create solutions together with our customers by conducting interviews and observations, generating ideas and working with customer pain points. We use opportunities for improvement that we discover to make the existing processes smoother.
About METRO Customer Experience and Innovation Priorities
We have four pillars for in-store innovation: VR/AR (immersive media), Smart Store, Smart Check-out and Sustainable Store.
In the area of VR/AR (immersive media), we are testing how we can improve our customers’ in-store shopping experience by AR technology run on their own smartphones. We bring our customers additional product information like recipes, ingredients and traceability info.
In the Smart Store branch, we run a pilot on in-store scanning and in-store navigation as well as a test of a picture recognition robot for locating misplaced or missing products.
Our main Smart Check-out project is MAKRO Scan in the Czech Republic where users scan the products with their phones and check out the trolley automatically. Finally, as part of the Sustainable Store pillar, we work with food waste handling and set up a digital platform dedicated to food waste reduction.
We are going to talk about some of the innovations that we have successfully been testing in the METRO store environment.
Compact Store Concept in France, 2016
While e-commerce and delivery are growing, customers still want to have physical stores and pick some of the products personally. However, modern stores should be omnichannel and well-organised, meet the requirements of busy people and provide background information about the products.
Designing the Concept in Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR) is a technology that creates interactive experiences in digitally generated environments, where the user’s physical presence is simulated in a realistic and immersive space. Users are able to look around, move and interact with features and items that are depicted in a headset, usually with a controller and their own body’s movements.
Modern companies are increasingly using virtual reality technology for interactive prototypes or immersive testing scenarios. This form of rapid prototyping helps save time and resources, and avoid costly mistakes.
We have taken this opportunity to the next level, not only creating a VR prototype to help visualize the Compact Store and improve design decision making, but also taking customers on a virtual journey through the store before its actual completion in order to observe, collect data, and generate insights.
We built the market in VR with its new architecture, products and digital offerings. With our local customers, we immersed ourselves in this virtual world and have directly incorporated their suggestions for improvement into the planning of the market. It helped us visualize the gaps in the planning or communication before investing in actual physical construction.
Interaction with Customers
The test took place in Alès, France and consisted of a series of individual sessions, each composed of two parts: the VR experience (service prototype) and an interview.
We designed the VR like a quest: customers received a shopping list with 18 items on it but the products were not only on the shelves but also only available via the digital tools. We wanted to test in VR how people interact with digital tools. The task was to collect the items from the checklist in the trolley and pay for them via the self-checkout process.
Most of the restaurateurs accomplished this in 22-38 minutes and really enjoyed the experience. If the test participants struggled to find the products in our demo within this time frame, it was a sign for METRO to change the store concept in terms of signage, architecture or design.
Customers had a choice to purchase the listed items either through one or more touchpoints or directly in the store. Some missing items were purposefully added to the shopping list to observe how and where the customers would look for them. If they asked for help to find them, the staff would inform them about the ordering possibilities through the terminals and offer help to guide them through the process.
After each test and interview session, the researchers did a debrief to identify the most relevant output. Once all the customer’s statements and researcher’s observations were assessed, they were placed on a journey map.
During the test, it became clear that there are customers who like shopping alone and those who rely on guidance.
The first category needs sufficient descriptions: general directions, navigation through product categories and additional information on product origin and ingredients. METRO App or devices like METRO Easy:Scan can serve as a channel for this data.
For the second category, store staff is indispensable: many customers are open for new digital services, but still like to maintain close relations to the store staff that impacts their purchase decisions. They want butchers to recommend the best meat and advise on its origin and flavour. The need for staff support should be addressed visually in a consistent manner throughout the different touchpoints of their service – help at kiosks and inside the store, telephone numbers, buzzers etc.).
VR prototype helped us avoid major architectural mistakes – thanks to it we discovered that the layout of the shelving system did not match the pillars of the store. This helped us avoid a costly mistake for the store fitters.
Same applies to shelf sizes: people of any height should be able to access the products. We had to think of old people pushing the trolleys to make sure those are not too heavy. We worked with heatmapping to define the routes which our customers take the most often to distribute the product categories, terminals and ads accordingly.
Customers called the new concept modern, elegant, pleasant, clear, well-constructed and classy. As it became warmer inside the store, it started feeling less like a warehouse. The new shelf construction provided the notion of a retail store, however, thanks to the personal treatment and professional assistance customers still recognised METRO.
This is the first part of the article “How to develop an ideal wholesale customer experience with design thinking and innovation”. The second part is available here.