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Salesforce Connections 2024 - can AI change the retail store experience? Hästens shares the keys to their omni-channel pursuits

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 31, 2024
Summary:
To say Hästens sells beds isn't the half of it - Hästens' success is about their customer experience. But getting that omni-channel mix right isn't easy. Here's what James Aschberger shared last week in Chicago - and why he thinks AI can change everything from analytics to the retail talent game.

James Aschberger Hastens Beds at Salesforce Connections 2024
(James Aschberger (left) with Rob Garf)

Last time we took a close look at Hästens, the pandemic was in full swing, and retailers were scrambling (see Stuart's Hästens makes its omni-channel retail bed with Apple and Salesforce). 

Fortunately for Hästens, their iPhone-based initiatives were actually hatched in 2019. So, even in 2021, Hästens was able to take a business model that thrives on in-store experiences, and lean on their mobile ordering and product configuration.  

Fast forward to Salesforce Connections 2024, and Hästens is again telling their Salesforce story - but now there is AI to reckon with. To say Hästens sells beds, mattresses and bedding would only be vaguely accurate. They are really selling "sleep experiences" - have a look at some of their beds to see what I'm talking about. 

Getting experiences right - what Hästens has learned

But today's consumers are not exactly an easy sell. So how is Hästens faring? We begin with a chat for the press/analysts at Salesforce Connections, where James Aschberger, Chief Customer and Marketing Officer at Hästens Beds, sat down with Salesforce's VP and GM of Retail Rob Garf.  Garf asked Aschberger about that "experience" aspect, and how "a lot of research shows that experiences as are more important than the product itself." 

Does that still hold true for Hästens? Aschberger:

Leading up to the journey from the very beginning, for someone that doesn't know Hästens, that's the first time we are interacting - that is part of that experience as well, to make people think, not to hard sell them and say, 'We're doing to pick you up and bring you down to one of our stores, and put you straight in bed'... This part of the experience is important, then curating the experience in the right way is equally important. 

Curating experiences, however, is a non-starter if you don't get the data right. And, as Aschberger acknowledges, they are competing at a higher price point, even if a good bed purchase averages out to minimal costs per hours used. Getting experience right means getting the details right, and not overstepping: 

We have to make sure that this experience is right... In marketing, if I say 'Let's go outside to the garage, and let me show you my car,' that's fine. If I say, 'Come to my home; look at my bed,' it gets really weird. So this is one of the things we've experienced, and getting the nuances right is important. It's the same when people come into our stores. They experience different products, lay down and start to relax. Calming music, the scent, the lighting needs to be right. The next thing you don't need is the UPS guy coming in. 

When customers do fall asleep, that's a good sign: 

We are one of the companies that really like if our customer falls asleep when they're with us. It's a really good sign, because they might realize how tired they are. They realize they're comfortable with all of this. 

From experiences to results - the impact of omni-channel investments

But how do these tech investments in customer experiences tie back to results? This 2021 quote from Hästens CFO Robert Carlen was a good early benchmark: 

We had a situation where normal transaction and configuration data was like a 30 minute job for a sales associate and and we wanted to shorten that down. With the help of Salesforce and the retail system, now we can say that the average sale, when it comes to the actual thing that configures the bed and does the payment, that's about two minutes now. So it's a substantial cut in that time and instead, the sales staff can spend more time actually helping the customer to get the best bed for them.

Another good sign: despite the longevity of the initial purchase, 40-45% of Hästens customers are repeat customers, buying additional beds for additional places, and even guest rooms. 

Can AI impact growth and profitability? Views from Connections 2024

So where does Hästens go from here? That brings us to Aschberger - and why he attended Salesforce Connections 2024. Most executives seem to be hunting down efficiency gains these days, so when Aschberger told me growth and profitability were his key event topics, I asked him for more on that.

We see the talk about possibilities, where AI can be deployed across the enterprise. That is very interesting, because it gives you ideas in terms of where you could drive growth, profitability, efficiency. The main thing is, I think, not to get overly excited that you say, 'AI should go everywhere right away,' and create kind of an overload.

AI could go anywhere in the production, in sourcing. It can go in analytics; AI can go everywhere. So we can look at different things, but in any kind of company, don't get overly excited and [deploy] all the resources right away - have kind of a measured approach and understand where you can add most value to your clients. Because not everything you can do is necessarily what you need to do right now. 

So where does Hästens land? Where is the AI priority? Aschberger points to their network of independent resellers - and the impact of AI on a shared platform. 

I think analytics is a great opportunity for us. We run a business model that is heavily reliant on independent resellers. Independent resellers tend to also use their own systems and everything. We've seen this as a challenge for the last year, so we have kind of a store in a box.

We have a solution, which is built on Salesforce, where a new partner of ours can operate their entire store just on their iPhone, including payment links for configuration, ordering the product - everything can be on a phone, and using Salesforce. 

The more independent resellers move onto this platform, the better the AI opportunity: 

The lifeblood of what becomes possible with AI is obviously customer data, behavioral data about the customer - not in a way that we need to follow them around. That's not the point. But to say, "How old is your bed? When did you buy it? When was your service?' The main points - if we get this information, we can provide better service to our customers. If we don't, then it gets much harder. 

We have a unified data layer, Snowflake, where a lot of information comes in. We're looking at Data Cloud now from Salesforce. Getting this right for us is key - not to say it's just the tool there. It's that the tool has enough information - and enough relevant information - in there that can be used.

My take - can AI democratize retail analytics, and make a difference for retail talent?

But Aschberger doesn't stop there: AI could democratize analytics, by putting user-friendly tools in the hands of domain experts - without dependency on hard-to-hire data analysts. He believes business experts are the ones who can see the outcomes in the data AI serves up - and flag any errors as well. 

Aschberger's views hit on a key issue: there is such a thing as AI readiness. It's not just a matter of vendors maturing their AI solutions; customers have work to do also. For Aschberger, this means apps platforms, rather than jumping from app to app: 

We've made some very conscious choices and investments over time: Commerce Cloud, Marketing Cloud, Loyalty Cloud; we use Tableau. We now work with Rootstock, so ERP will move to essentially a Salesforce base too. We want to bring all of this together. 

Aschberger is eager to see more AI support for retail employees. AI could be a big boost to retail workers, by equalizing the information/app savvy with customers, who walk into the store full of real-time pricing and product knowledge. I wanted to see more of this at Connections 2024, so during my prior Commerce Cloud interview with Salesforce VP Product Management Alex Bucher, I asked about it. Bucher said Salesforce wanted to start with Einstein Copilot for Merchants. But it sounds like Salesforce is taking the retail employee opportunity with AI seriously, so let's see how that plays out. 

Meanwhile, Aschberger is ready to move ahead, though the tech must always reinforce customer trust:

It's not just robots and artificial materials that come together; every piece is manufactured. So in one way, every piece that our customers buy is unique. It's made for them. This is why we see technology as something that helps us drive the experience, helps us to drive growth... We need that human element, that element of trust as well.

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