Sometimes it feels like the employees are disappearing from stores. Amazon has started rolling out cashier-less stores that use cameras and other high-tech sensors to track what shoppers take. Walmart now has “pick-up towers” that act as in-store vending machines for online orders. Tech has started to fuse with the traditional world of brick-and-mortar stores, where a shopper is generally greeted and helped by a living, breathing store employee. But is that the future of retail? Do customers want more high-tech to come to brick-and-mortar stores near them?
According to retailers, the answer is yes – but a recent survey I conducted with Oracle NetSuite and Wakefield found this isn’t what customers want.
We surveyed 1,200 shoppers in the US, UK, and Australia and nearly every one of them said they see a need to go into a physical store to purchase items, with 70 percent reporting that the most appealing stores have features that simplify and streamline the shopping experience. This could be anything from easier-to-navigate stores to fewer choices of brand options to an associate helping when needed.
At the same time, the majority of respondents felt negative emotions the last time they visited a store – confused, anxious, and overwhelmed. This is the exact opposite of what retailers want.
The disconnects don’t end there. We found that 79 percent of the 400 surveyed retail executives think having VR and AI in stores will increase sales, yet just 14 percent of consumers believe these technologies will impact their purchase decisions. Retailers thought tech was the silver bullet to fixing the problem of a negative shopping experience, but it clearly isn’t.
The solution to the differing opinions? Retailers need to know their customers so they can craft every in-store interaction such that the customer feels good and wants to come back. It’s very simple.
Instead of relying on tech to do the work for them, retailers should be using tech in a smarter way to support analog interactions. In fact, contrary to popular belief, millennials actually want employees to help them. This starts with training employees to use tech in the right way – which is simply not happening right now.
Nearly half the retailers in the survey didn’t believe their staff had the tools and information needed to give consumers a personalized experience. But if employees are properly trained and understand how tech can promote a better experience, they can help shoppers feel valued and welcomed. Equally as important, those shoppers will be more likely to come back.
Instead of implementing shiny new tech just because they can, retailers should be focusing on how tech can make often frustrating processes – like checking out or locating items – easier. We found that customers’ top tech picks are self-checkout kiosks, virtual reality try-on like magic mirrors, and mobile payments at least as simple as swiping a card. These aren’t robots or anything flashy; they are things that make the shopping experience more seamless.
For example, at this year’s NRF annual conference I learned about Volumental, a new tech solution that helps customer get what they want – shoes that fit. They provide a 3D scan of a shopper’s feet so they know their precise measurements. Not only does this allow store employees to support customers in pinpointing exactly what will fit them, it also helps manufacturers understand if, say, their size 8s are too small for most women with that shoe size and they are not selling after many try-ons. This is tech that helps a retailer meets customers’ needs while learning more about them in the process.
Most retailers have a lot to learn about what the modern shopper wants. That is the core of a successful business. Without that understanding, flashy tech means nothing. Once retailers begin to understand shoppers’ needs, they can implement smart tech solutions that meet customers where they are and connect with them in a real way.
Bob Phibbs is CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York-based retail consulting firm. With over 30 years of experience in retail, Bob has worked as a consultant, speaker, and entrepreneur, helping businesses revolutionize their brand and grow their success. Bob is also the author of three highly-praised books, including The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business. His clients include some of the largest retail brands in the world including Bernina, Brother, Caesars Palace, Hunter Douglas, Lego, Omega and Yamaha.