Omnichannel retailing

Across the retail industry, a debate has been brewing about the role of digital in bricks-and-mortar stores. From the use of beacons and mobile checkouts to on-screen product displays, the question of how — and why — technology should be used in retail is certainly a hot topic.

And while many experts feel that filling shops with screens detracts from the customer experience, I would contend that far from subjugating the physicality of the store, technology is probably the only thing that can save the modern in-store shopping experience.

To start, I don’t think anyone is lamenting the loss of the modern American in-store experience to technology. Have you been to a mall lately? If this is the experience we’re trying to preserve, we have worse problems than the proliferation of screens. Shopping in most stores today is either like walking into “Night of the Living Dead,” or the worst kind of assault on the senses. It’s difficult to locate products you came for, finding a salesperson is a moment to be celebrated, Pitbull is blaring through the speakers, the line for the dressing room is too long — and the list goes on. Technology can only help this already dire situation.

As terrible as “real-life” shopping can be, we all know that online shopping comes with limitations. Beyond the lack of opportunity for shoppers to touch and try out the products they’re interested in, it’s also a tough place for brands to forge an emotional connection with consumers. Most successful e-commerce retailers have gotten their online shopping experience streamlined to a point where it’s reasonably painless, but they’ll never be able to show you whether or not those pants make your butt look good.

That’s why integration of in-store technology has the potential to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a way to bridge the divide between bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce, and act as an enabler to get consumers closer to the brands they love and the products they need. More and more, we see the retail space discussed less in terms of physical stores versus e-commerce as if they are two different things, but as more of a spectrum, where one side feeds the other, and in-store technology blurs the lines between the two.

Already, Millennials see shops as showrooms for purchases they can make online. Step into any store that caters to young people and you’ll see them with their phones out, comparison shopping, checking to see if things are in stock and making purchases online. That behavior is a signal that there’s a huge opportunity for brands to give consumers customized in-store tools that will get them off their phones and immersed in the brand and what it can offer them. Today’s stores need more screens, not fewer.

Because really, why should anyone spend time wandering around a store looking for a pair of pants, when an in-store iPad could tell them exactly where inside the store they’ll find it, and whether or not it’s available in their size? (Or, for that matter, when they could get the same info on their phone before they’ve even left the house?) Why shouldn’t brands use technology to make personalized suggestions for accessories or upcoming product lines to consumers when they’re at the point of purchase? It’s good for the brand, and more importantly, it’s good for the consumer because it saves them time and effort.

Far from replacing the need to interface with a human salesperson, technology can make it easier for shoppers to get help from a real person, by allowing for appointments, or informing salespeople of a specific shopper’s preferences and purchase history. Even the biggest global brands can start to deliver personalized service, much like they do online, if their associates have the tools to bring consumer profiles and data into the face-to-face relationship.

Technology only serves as a detriment to the in-store experience when brands do it for the wrong reasons. We’ve all seen what occurs when Millennial-obsessed brands use technology for technology’s sake, in an effort to connect with the so-called “digital natives.” Instead of creating tools to help consumers connect with the brand or products they need, they focus on trendy, useless things like selfie booths, and end up serving neither themselves nor the consumer.

The role of the physical store in the consumer experience will still be an important one in the coming decades, but the companies that will own the next era of retail will be the ones that put the consumer first and enhance those stores with smart, customized technology that will add convenience, enhance human interactions and crucially, make shoppers feel truly valued.

Tony King is founder and chief executive officer at King & Partners.

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