The pace of advancement in retail has been so fast in recent years, AEVI CEO Mike Camerling told Karen Webster in a recent conversation, that it can be genuinely difficult for SMBs – particularly mom-and-pop mainstream merchants – to keep up.
“It can frankly just be overwhelming to the extent that they can’t see the forest for the trees – and they can’t even answer the simplest question of ‘where do I start?'” he said.
That isn’t an easy question for big, enterprise-level players to answer in the age of multichannel commerce, let alone single proprietorships. These merchants are often told that “they need to be all of these things so they can continue to have a relationship with their customer,” Camerling told Webster.
Often, they are offered less guidance on how to offer it, or within what suite of services these capabilities need to exist. And, Camerling noted, that execution piece is where all of these brilliant new ideas get really, really tricky. In many businesses, there is a division between the digital execution team that looks at all of the engagement data and the payments people who deal with transactions, frauds, returns and all of the operational data.
AEVI, by its nature, sits between these two processes, managing to unite them into a single stream, so they can – in partnership with merchant acquirers and banks – enable merchants to access various types of omnicommerce apps to better build customer relationships.
But more than offering SMB capabilities, the bigger goal is to help them understand those capabilities and how they can (and should) use them.
“The key work for us is choice,” Camerling said. “The big problem in the SMB markets is they are almost overwhelmed with all of the new innovations coming their way that they ‘have to have.’ At some point, SMBs will start to feel like they have no idea what to do and no idea what they even need to look at, and will miss the really important things.”
Resetting the Acquirer/Merchant Bank Relationship
While SMBs have been rather deeply affected by the rapidly changing nature of the digital economy, they aren’t alone. Merchant acquirers and banks, Camerling noted, are also very much trying to figure out how to make their way in an economy where there’s a good chance of them becoming largely disintermediated.
The good news, he pointed out, is that in the era of a lot of “new” that is hard to navigate, acquirers and banks have a unique chance to get back to their roots a bit.
Camerling said that acquirers once worked based on relationships with their merchants, and took on the role of trust advisor. Those relationships have since changed – they have lost stickiness, because many continue to simply hand the merchant a piece of plastic at a POS.
These days, those merchants are being much more actively courted. Players like Square and Clover are targeting this exact scale of merchants with a payments-in-a-box solution that rolls up the acquirer relationship and payments process, packaged together with a suite of business management tools – in short, Webster noted, giving SMBs access to an entire ecosystem that helps them run their businesses and serve their customers.
“What merchant acquirers now need is a way to serve their customers better – maybe that’s selecting a better device, maybe that means access to a software platform that gives them access to apps so they manage their business with things like inventory controls and messaging capabilities,” Camerling told Webster.
Moreover, through an advisor relationship, he noted, the merchant servicers can help their customers think about the whole experience of the customer, instead of just about the checkout.
Thinking Beyond the Checkout
It has always been a bit mysterious, Camerling told Webster, that so many ideas about innovating the customer experience spring from iterating on the point of sale. As he pointed out, not everything needs to be built from the POS out. Instead of capturing the customer at the end of the shopping experience, merchants can start building an experience earlier.
The question isn’t about the POS itself, Camerling said, but instead it’s about how merchants are capturing and using data. If there’s an advantage that eCommerce merchants have traditionally had over their brick-and-mortar counterparts, it is that from the moment the customer gets to their site, they can try to capture information by getting the customer to sign in or sign up. That gives them the advantage of being able to see the customer’s entire shopping history and start modifying the experience from there.
The small mom-and-pop shop needs to be able to do something similar, Camerling says, though by no means something identical.
“This is often so much simpler than people think it is – something as simple as getting a customer to leave some data with you. So, for example, I leave my shirts in the morning at the dry cleaners. That dry cleaner can text me to tell me if my shirts are done early, so I can pick them up on my way home from work instead of the following day.”
While the advances in retail and merchant technology often get spoken of in the most whiz-bang terms, and who can build the fanciest app, for mom-and-pop shops that’s a lot of light with no heat for their businesses. Generally speaking, consumers don’t want to put their dry cleaner’s or mechanic’s app on their phone.
But helping mechanics to build an online calendar so that customers can schedule their own routine maintenance? That, has some legs, Camerling noted, because it speaks to the customer’s actual needs.
“All of these tricks are fairly obvious, and they make a difference,” he said. “The question is getting the word out to all those SMBs, and telling them this is relevant to them, and this is exactly how.”
The advancements will keep on coming, as will figuring out the nuances of building them all in. Voice, Camerling noted, is an excellent green field coming up for SMBs, particularly when it comes to things like discovery and scheduling.
But the real future, he noted, will be in helping merchants navigate a complicated path where “the next big thing” comes up a lot – and it can be easy to get lost in the woods.
“We need to help merchants by making it very straightforward, so that they are thinking about running their businesses and are able to make the choices that best enable them to do that,” Camerling said. “Don’t force them to try and make it up themselves – it is just a good way to get very overwhelmed.”