Brick-and-mortar venues of any stripe, but particularly retail stores, are at an inflection point. There's plenty of bad news to go around, but there's also plenty of good. There are lights in the darkness — and they're the stores and restaurants and amusement parks that are devoting themselves to creating innovative and engaging experiences for their customers.
At this year's ICX Summit in Dallas, in my opening remarks I said to the brands in attendance the issue at hand isn't so much whether the news is good or bad overall; the questions is, is it good or bad for you?
Fortunately, for most of them it was a question of self-selection, one they'd already answered well simply by being there, by being curious about what others are doing, and by being willing to share what they're doing, to create those best-in-class in-store experiences. They and those like them are the ones for whom the news going forward is most likely to be good.
It's impossible to attend every session at the summit, unfortunately — the laws of physics are annoyingly rigid on the whole two-places-at-one-time thing — but from the ones I did attend, and from what I heard about the ones I didn't, the panel discussions were veritable goldmines of useful nuggets of wisdom for the lucky ones there at the summit.
Here is just a sampling:
The 80% v. 8% conundrum
Off all the statistics presented during an intense day and a half of sessions, this is the one that still sticks with me — and should scare all of us. During the opening session keynote (which also featured speakers from Neiman Marcus and The Home Depot), Paul Blackburn, the vice president of concept design, construction and merchandising for L'Occitane en Provence, cited a Bain & Co. survey that said 80 percent of companies believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but only 8 percent of customers believe these companies deliver a superior customer experience.
That should alarm everyone in this space. But it should also be, like any of the good or bad tidings coming our way, a call to action to create, and rigorously test, better in-store or in-venue experiences. As he also said: "No one takes selfies while they're ordering something on Amazon."
‘Random acts of digital'
In a session on customer experience ROI, Albert Vita, director of strategy and insights for The Home Depot, and who it's probably safe to say charmed the entire summit with his enthusiasm for the topic of CX, said "random acts of digital" weren't helping anyone, brands or customers: "If we can't measure it, it shouldn't go in."
The breakout sessions and panel discussions at the summit are without fail some of the most interesting educational opportunities of my year. But sometimes at the event, the unplanned conversations can be every bit as illuminating as the sessions and panels.
I'm adding several books to my reading list following some of the chats I had in Dallas, thanks particularly to David Kepron, vice president of global design strategies for Marriott International, and Roberta Perry, vice president of business development for Fresh Juice Global, among others. The concept of synaptic pruning is something David brought to my attention: It's the idea that certain neural pathways in the brain are either strengthened or wither away as people pass from childhood through adolescence, based on brain activity. Put simply, things children do strengthen certain synapses, and the things they don't do cause others to, in effect, be "pruned" away.
Why is this important? Because for millennials, generation Z and those coming after, their brains could be literally, functionally different from those of people who came before, because of the technology they use and, perhaps, the face-to-face conversations they decreasingly have. So how do we reach those people as customers, and how do we get them to interact with customers as the employees of the future?
‘Technology is not a silver bullet'
Does your technology deployment solve a problem for your customers? Scott Emmons, head of the Innovation Lab for Neiman Marcus, was refreshingly frank in talking about in-store tech that didn't work, as well as what did. One particular example that seemed really innovative and interesting fell flat, he said, because it didn't solve for a customer need, and so they just didn't use it. Or, as Jordan Fraser, GameStop's director of business development for GameStop TV, put it: "We don't try to be cool just to be cool."
Millennials continue to confound
The summit's closing general session, "The Last Word on ICX: Millennials Speak for Themselves," was an eye-opening panel discussion that featured a clutch of the prized demographic speaking for themselves. After all the ink that's been spilled deciphering what millennials want, the seven-member millennial panel pretty well threw a wrench into everyone's expectations.
It should be noted, though, there were some instances of self-contradiction; one attendee observed that some of what was said may have been a case of people saying something to sound one way now, while later acting another.
(Favorite retailers: Amazon, Amazon, Amazon or eBay, Google … and Target's $1 section. Attitudes about Starbucks: Overhyped, oversweet, overpriced. Apple got some of the same.)
What still stands out to me is how they almost universally declared their distrust of — and sometimes disdain for — the store and the store associate: The Internet was for researching beforehand; store associates tend to not know as much as they do when they come into the store; and the brick-and-mortar store is pretty much a place to go pick up stuff after they've researched it and found the best local price online. Of course, maybe that's why fully half picked an online option as their favorite retailer …
Either way, the answers were surprising, and the audience kept coming up against the difference between what surveys said millennials wanted and what the millennials in front of us said they wanted. It was a good reminder — especially when a millennial member of the audience also talked about his fondness for going into the physical store to pick out a new hunting bow or fishing rod — of something I've heard, and said, quite a bit recently: "Remember, millennials aren't monolithic. You can't treat them as though they're all the same."
And maybe that's the best lesson from all of this: Brands really can't treat any of their customers like they're all alike anymore, not just the millennials, especially now that the technology is available to enable brands to treat them all more and more like individuals.
As the old curse goes, "May you live in interesting times." It was "interesting times" indeed at this year's summit, and now is an interesting time to be in the business of customer experience. Let's work together to make sure it's a blessing and not a curse.
Topics: Consumer Behavior, CRM, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Department Stores, Display Technology, ICX Summit, Interactive / Touchscreen, Kiosks / Self-Service, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Merchandising, Multifunction Kiosks, Omnichannel / Multichannel, Online Retailing, Retail - Analytics, Retail - Digital Signage, Shopper Marketing, Signage, Store Design & Layout, Technology
Christopher Hall / Christopher is the managing director of the Interactive Customer Experience Association and former editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.