The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation on RetailWire, reproduced here with kind permission. The author is RetailWire contributing tech editor Ken Lonyai.
The retail world is abuzz with discussions and investigations into the latest technologies that can "transform" stores into surefire profit centers that will take back the ground lost to successful e-tailers like Amazon. Few ever really implement new technologies that truly leverage mobile, big data and real cross-channel merchandising. But retailers do spend a lot of time considering — and making it known that they are considering — "tricking out" their stores with the latest and greatest technology to make shopping fun, exciting, meaningful, satisfying, efficient, convenient (choose your adjective).
In reality, many retailers can achieve these same lofty goals without technology, at least initially. They simply need to focus on mastering the basics of customer service and user experience, as did visionaries in the non-tech heyday of retailing (Macy, Field, Wanamaker, Ward, etc.).
I'm a proponent of innovative retail technology, but I'm also the first to admit it will fail if built on a foundation of poor service and apathetic C-level management — all too often the situation today.
It gets worse when decentralized management (which often seems like a good idea) is structured so that store-level problems are kept from corporate's awareness.
Take Whole Foods: the corporate PR machine spins stories of satisfied customers and innovations like self-guided shopping carts, while store-level service failures get washed away with the tide.
Personal example: After reporting two ongoing issues with a New Jersey store via the corporate website, seven days later (!) an e-mail arrived from the local store's associate store team leader, Darreck. Another eight days passed with nothing resolved, so I placed a call to the Northeast Regional Office, talking to Jason. That inquiry went the way of what can be described as Jason covering for his buddy. Rather than investing more energy (and weeks) into hunting down John Mackey, our grocery shopping has moved elsewhere.
So doesn't it make much more sense for corporate to be sure that their house is in order? Wouldn't investments be better dedicated to focusing on customer desires? That they have a headquarters through checkout aisle management hierarchy that checks and rechecks that consumer needs are always the focus? That they have open and effective channels of customer communication and problem resolution all the way to the top — before ... way, way before ... they delude themselves that tech solutions are the key to customer happiness?
RetailWire BrainTrust comments:
I disagree with Ken on this one. I do think that technology is an enabler for store associates to have an equal footing with customers who use their technology while shopping/showrooming, etc. I cannot see how Home Depot can route a call from a customer directly to the right person in the right department without their First Phone solution, nor how American Apparel can find the right size, color and style product without RFID readers in all their stores. Yes, we may be able to do all that in time, but not in time for today's consumer who wants an answer as fast as their computer can tell them. — Frank Riso, Sr. Director, Global Leader, Retail Industry, Motorola Solutions, Inc.
Too much technology is just like too little: futile. Brands that don't automate are just as bad as those that automate past the point of realistic returns (and past the point of human acceptance of technology and faceless protocols).
Technology is never a substitute for good processes. You can't buy a solution to your systematic problems. But technology should be able to alleviate some very critical "pain points," where you spend the most time, where the greatest risks are, where failure is most likely to happen. Technology is an "aspirin," not a holy grail. Don't spend too much or too little, spend as needed up until the pain goes away. — Fabien Tiburce, CEO, Compliantia, Retail Audit & Task Management Software
While the statistics vary by category, 70+% of consumers shop online before they go to the store, but roughly 70% purchase in store. Why do they still go to stores? The simple, and complex answer is that they value the shopping experience.
If investment in technology does not augment and integrate with the consumer's "natural shopping journey," then it is an interruption, ignored, or even decreases sales.
There is a solid reason that Apple Stores "hire for smiles." The core basics of proactively interacting with consumers cannot be duplicated by technology, or easily replicated by competitors. — Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions
There is always a risk of tactics or tools distracting from the actual objective that is meant to be accomplished with the aid of those same tools and tactics. This isn't limited to retail, but plays out in every organization where focus and alignment are not maintained over time. The basics of customer service remain the same, and tools should only be applied based on their ability to improve or maintain that service level while delivering greater value to stakeholders — customers, employees, owners, etc. — Verlin P. Youd, Managing Director, Americas, attune Consulting
(Photo by Nick Bastian.)