Piers Fawkes: Retailers — Stop Making Bad, Real-World Web Sites

Stores can’t compete with services better delivered by the efficiencies of the web but should instead focus on the art of the human experience.

Earlier this week I was on stage at the Shopper Marketing Summit in Chicago as a keynote speaker. While I was introducing my talk about the Future of Retail, I spoke – as I usually do – about how while the findings of PSFK’s report on the subject suggests that technology can actually help create a more human experience in store, often electronics and systems suck the soul out of the shopping experience.

As I presented, an idea came to me — when retailers use technology to fight online shopping, they simply turn their stores into bad versions of the internet. Retailers all too frequently choose technology over humanity, efficiency over service and novelty over true refreshment.

I tend to start the Future of Retail talks with a couple of examples of technology ruining retail theater. First I speak about the ‘greeter’ hologram that shouts at shoppers as they enter a Wall Street branch of the pharmacy chain Duane Reade. I don’t know how much a virtual sales person costs, but I’m sure it’s a lot more than a real one does. It’s an example of retailers flight from having to deal with human beings — trying to buy service through technology rather than accomodate the modern realities of hiring, training and compensation.

The second example I give on stage is from an experience I had when I moved to our new offices on Bond Street. Like many small business owners, I went to IKEA for some of the furnishings! When I talk, I recount that as I arrived at the check-outs (with a trolley half full of things I needed and half-full of things I never knew I needed) I found a dozen cash-registers with the self-scanning option and just two that were staffed. Where were the lines of customers? All queuing up for the checkouts with human staff. I had over $1,500 worth of gear in my overflowing shopping cart and the last thing I wanted to do was unpack it all myself to scan. I wanted someone to help me. So I waited in line a long time and my positive IKEA experience evaporated.

What is happening is that to compete with the web, retailers think they have to create stores that operate like the web. The problem is that no-one is ever going to make such a killer experience in the real world. A store can’t be as hyper-efficient or as customer-data driven. The services provided by offline retailers can’t compete with any similar services that are found on an ecommerce site. It’s a losing battle and the inability to understand how to compete with the web is critically harming big-box and main-street retail.

Retailers need to stop making bad versions of websites in the real world and offer the humanity that the internet robot can’t compete with. Stores can’t always provide customers with services that are better delivered than those of the efficient web, but they should instead focus on the art of the human experience. They need to empower staff with tech, not replace them with tech. Tablets and other systems can support them in their day to day — but when staff can’t be present in a store they need to be able to be accessed virtually through the store — instantly.

There are other points of differentiation for offline retail — aesthetic and sensory experiences that can be just as important as staff — but there’s nothing as beautiful, understanding and ‘human’ as well-trained, motivated people.

Staff can make you feel welcome, staff can tell stories, staff can explain, staff can sympathize, staff can reassure you that it’s the right product — and staff can make you feel like a million dollars when you leave a store having bought a dress worth $100.

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