Boots launches IBM-powered Sales Assist app, laying down the foundations of its omnichannel strategy

Boots Sales Assist app

Boots UK has become the first retailer in the world to take advantage of the Apple and IBM partnership to help businesses build more iOS apps, marking the beginning of a structural change to the business around the customer experience.

It is launching Sales Assist - an IBM MobileFirst for iOS app - to provide shoppers with a better experience in-store as part of the retailer’s move to build an omnichannel business.

The app, which will be installed on iPads across its stores, taps into the product databases on boots.com to allow employees to access online inventory and locate products on the behalf of shoppers.

It uses analytics so that shop assistants can make personal recommendations to customers - such as additional items or alternatives available - based on popular searches, what other customers have purchased and up-to-date offers.

In its current form, the app simply operates as a way to find products and get recommendations, which can be collected in a basket but it cannot take payments. Instead, the customer’s basket is sent to a till in-store. When quizzed about this, Boot’s director of omnichannel and development Robin Phillips told The Drum “there is a roadmap beyond this product”, adding “the things it should be doing it probably will be doing in the future”.

The store of the future

The app is just one component of the retailer’s omnichannel strategy, with more product launches and updates promised soon. Phillips was appointed 18 months ago to steer this strategy. The app is “laying down the the core foundations to execute an omnichannel strategy” claimed the marketer, who is taking a holistic view of Boots' online presence and store estate, which also includes 600 opticians.

He dubbed the app an “essential piece of glue for the customer experience”, and was keen to assert that while the app’s functionalities will keep growing, there will always be a need for human interaction and a “store experience”.

“What we are trying to empower colleagues to do is move away from a traditional retail job into one that is more in front of the customer and is part of the overall experience and service which a customer is increasingly expecting when they come into Boots. We are providing reassurance to customers and the colleague is enabled to provide that service. I see the role of the colleague evolving to be more in front of the customer in the moment.” Phillips said.

Stores should be “multi-functional” and shouldn’t just act as ‘changing rooms’, according to Phillips, who said Boots will increasingly adapt to fulfil three things: a service which tailors the range of products around shopper preferences, a fulfilment centre where stores will have dedicated areas for the ‘order and collect’ service, and an advice centre; which is putting beauty and health advisors in front of consumers as part of the retail experience.

Commercial opportunities

As it stands, brands will not be able to sponsor the top section of the app, which features two spots for product recommendations. Phillips said it is “really important” that colleagues are able to genuinely give the right advice to the customer, and that recommendations show a “unbiased” and “uncluttered” version of what is right for the customer. But commercial opportunities were not ruled out entirely, with one employee suggesting the top products section could be used to cross-promote a beauty campaign that is going on in-store.

Boots is the first retailer in the world to fully deploy an IBM MobileFirst for iOS app across its business, which includes 2,500 stores, and 3,700 devices. Sales Assist is one of more than 100 apps in the IBM MobileFirst for iOS portfolio made exclusively for iPhone and iPad and is designed to change the nature of work for global companies in specific industries and professions.

How retail can use AI

IBM is working with Boots UK to further evolve the app and support the retailer’s vision to use mobility to change the way customers shop.

Shamayun Miah, the European vice president of IBM’s Apple Partnership, hinted the future of the app would involve the integration of cognitive data, where the retailer will be able to use AI to influence the customer journey.

It could mean instead of having recommendations based on what other customers purchased, it moves into a recommendation based on a user’s personal style, likes and dislikes, from a system that understands each consumer and the types of products that suit. The system would learn this both through past purchases and by scanning a user’s social activity (with permission) to tailor product offers.

The other thing that Rodney Bryant - IBM’s retail industry lead for the Apple partnership - mentioned was a language service, where a consumer would be able to ask questions and get answers back, similar to the operations of a chatbot.

The rolling out of this technology is expensive, even at the basic level it is at right now, where 3700 devices have been distributed across its stores to host the app. While both Boots and IBM assured The Drum that the technology does not eliminate the need for as many staff, time will tell where cost-cutting will occur in the company to fund such technological advances.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.