Retail’s Misguided Attempt to Embrace Technology

There seems to be a broad consensus that for retail to flourish in the future, it will have to embrace technology that offers the customization and convenience of online shopping. Reporting on the industry’s annual Shoptalk meeting in Las Vegas recently, the New York Times reports that we can “expect stores to incorporate the kind of digital data collection that has powered the online world.”

Oh joy. Here’s an example of how retailers might want to improve our shopping experience:

A presentation by FaceFirst demonstrated how retailers could use its facial-recognition technology to engage with customers after they walked into stores.

The company’s chief executive, Peter Trepp, showed how stores could send automatic text messages to shoppers and receive their profiles to assist them better. He showed an example of a profile, which contained a shopper’s visit history, the minutes she spent in the store on her last trip, what she bought during that visit and the sum of her online purchases with the store’s chain.

How scary is that? I understand that my life, and everyone else’s, is an open book. The broad patterns of our lives down to the smallest details are documented on the web every day with every keystroke, but there is still at least the illusion of anonymity. I believe that “they” are collecting more than meta-data to understand our behavior, and I don’t think it’s paranoid to think that anyone with modest digital skills might be able to tell you where I am at this moment, what I’m writing and what kind of tea I just ordered.

Still the specter of, a “he” or “she” – a specific individual, a complete stranger I have just met as I walk into a store – knowing what’s in my closet (literally and figuratively) feels like a violation.

Consistent with marketers’ current obsession with storytelling, retailers also talk about creating “an experience,” often with elements of entertainment.

“We have to admit we’re not just in the product business anymore,” Daniella Vitale, the chief executive and president of the Barneys department store chain, said in an interview. “The expectation of what a retail experience should be is beyond just good product and excellent customer service.”

Hmm. This reminds me of wonderful observation made by Rosie O’Donnell many years ago regarding an advertising campaign for Slim-Fast weight loss products. “Slim-Fast three times a day, one sensible meal, and you’ll lose weight. But if I could eat a f***ing sensible meal in the first place why would I need Slim-Fast?”

In addition to the self-imposed problem of retail being overbuilt – how many Banana Republics do we need in a five-mile radius? – it seems that if retailers had been paying attention to “good product and excellent customer service” they’d be in much better shape today.

Internet sales will continue to capture a greater percentage of sales from brick and mortar, and it will up to retailers to how to leverage each to provide the best shopping experience for customers.

There are, of course, many ways to reimagine retail that leverage technology for the benefit of all.  One idea being tested by Nordstrom and others would sharply reduce floor space by having just one size of each item in each style. Measurements could be taken and saved and the order – in the perfect fit – could be picked up. This offers clothing shoppers the ability to “touch and feel,” along with the opportunity to be personally advised by a salesperson.

However, the role of technology in brick in mortar cannot and should not be simply cut and paste from the digital realm. I don’t want salespeople to know everything about me. I do want them to great me promptly, answer my questions and help guide me to a good decision. A little personal attention goes a long way.

The “high touch” experience of personal sales support and the ability to lay your hands on the merchandise are what brick and mortar can does best. Yes, leverage technology where it makes sense, but please don’t automate what should be a process discovery and delight.

Macy’s, do you hear me? Anyone here? Can someone help me? Please?

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