By Sven Montanus, head of product development at B2X
“The future of retail is all about personalized service and education,” announced AT&T’s President of Retail Paul Roth in a recent interview on Retail Customer Experience. Roth is in charge of 2,300 AT&T stores throughout North America and he began redesigning each store from scratch two years ago. The underlying assumption that Roth used for his redesign: People who enter a store come for the primary purpose of learning, experiencing products and services firsthand, and having a face-to-face interaction with a real person.
The redesign caters to exactly that purpose. The new AT&T stores offer learning tables that facilitate an intimate and personalized conversation between a customer and a store agent. This should encourage education and a more intense, direct interaction. Store agents help customers to set up their devices, they explain and demonstrate new features of smartphones and tablets, help facilitate any returns, exchanges, or hardware replacements in case of a problem, and ensure the customer can make an informed decision in purchasing a new product. Experience zones let customers try products in a connected context; for example smartphones are paired with different speaker options, allowing potential purchasers to hear the differences between smartphones and test out their Bluetooth connection speeds.
AT&T’s initiative ties into a new trend of redefining in-store retail. This trend is especially important for product categories such as electronic devices and other technologies that require a higher level of customer support before and after purchase. Remember that smartphones and tablets are still new to many people – and they can be complex. “There needs to be a place to discover them and to learn how to get the most out of them”, said Apple CEO Tim Cook on the fringe of a product demonstration last year in San Jose. Apple Stores are probably the best known retail innovation of the last decade. Today, Apple has the most profitable retail stores in the world.
A cornerstone of Apple’s retail concept is the Genius Bar that provides technical support for Apple products. Ron Johnson, Apple’s former Retail Head, has often referred to the Genius Bar as the “heart and soul of our stores.” According to a study by NPD Group, nine of ten Apple customers are more likely to make another Apple purchase following their support experience at Genius Bar – it is now a major success story despite some challenges in the beginning. “Nobody came to the Genius Bars during those first years. I remember going into a store one evening, and no geniuses were on duty. I asked what happened, and the manager told me that there were no customers, and so they sent the genius home,” explained Johnson in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “But despite that, I had a belief—a conviction—that face-to-face support was going to be much better for customers than phone and web support, which are often really frustrating and ineffective. So we stuck with it, and gradually customers started coming. Three years later the Genius Bars were so popular that we had to set up a reservation system to manage the demand.”
Many prominent players of the technology industry have adapted the “experiential” concept of Apple Retail. Microsoft has introduced its “Answer Desk,” Telefónica has “O2 Gurus” in their O2 stores and AT&T is just about to roll out its new retail concept that we previously discussed. And Google? No official statements yet but “Google is poised to revolutionize consumer retail”, as Forrester Analyst J. P. Gownder has put it in a recent Forbes article.
In-store retail has an important place in a connected world because users of electronic products are looking for personal and competent service and support. As most manufacturers are lacking the physical store presence they cannot currently offer this level of support, but existing retail shops can. Here is the opportunity for consumer electronics retailers and mobile network operators:
- Improve customer satisfaction through an effective in-store service offering that provides a real solution for a high portion of all service inquiries by your customers – directly and personally in the store.
- Differentiate from your competitors through a comprehensive service offering that goes beyond warranty and provides advice and support at all stages of your customer’s life with new technologies.
- Monetize every service interaction – either directly through selling paid service offerings or indirectly by cross-selling accessories or upgrading your customers to new product versions.