Technology could give shopping the fun factor

Nick Booth
Retail 225x300 Technology could give shopping the fun factor

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The retail industry has always been fun because it’s about people. You see everything in this environment: all human life is here. That’s why the maxims for retail are usually about human psychology. ‘Retail is about detail’ and ‘eye level is buy level’ both refer to how humans interact with the shop environment. The onset of technology threatens to make retail less fun though. I find it hard to get excited when sitting through a presentation about creating a cohesive cross-channel business. Not a barrel of laughs is it?

But technology is important because customers want options to make their life easier. For example, Selfridges in London has just spent an absolute fortune redesigning its shoe department. It might look fantastic but I wonder if customers will get served any quicker. If they’d invested in some self service technology, like virtual changing rooms or multimedia terminals, you could have used that waiting time constructively. They could have made shopping fun as well as achingly fashionable. They could have stopped you walking out.

The problem with UK retailers (as research below shows) is that they’ve used technology to give themselves more power but not done enough for the consumer. Customers want to order online and pick things up in the shop, or buy online and take returns back to the counter, so research tell us. If you can penetrate the barrier of new technical jargon says Adam Simon, global MD of retail analyst Context, you can discover some fascinating human insights buried under the cover of guff about ‘multi-channel synergies’.

Take Jessops, the camera shop now in administration. It used technology to commit the cardinal sin of insulting the customers, says Simon. How? By setting different prices for the same products sold online and in the shops. Even if staff wanted to offer shoppers the lower price, they had to pretend they were buying online. That’s the way to make your customers love you: create a class system between the online and the on-the-street shopper.

Why treat your street customers as an underclass? Most US retailers (81 per cent, says Kiki Labs research) allow customers to use computers in store to check the availability of products in store. Only 40 per cent of UK retailers do that. Nearly 40 per cent of US shoppers can use the digital channel to check prices, but only a quarter of UK ones do the same. Maybe if technology was available to UK shoppers while they were in the shop, the customers would feel less ripped off and stores would be more popular.

Some companies are already doing this. More companies are putting in terminals so, say, you can pick a shoe in store, scan it and see the shop has it in your size and colour in the warehouse. This gives you the visceral pleasure of handling the goods and the efficiency of advantages of online shopping.

UK retailers need to catch up but many are struggling to find a coherent policy across both online shopping and traditional retail. “Even Dixons, with a 70 per cent market share in the UK, closed 12 internet sites and shuttered all of its Pixmania stores across Europe,” says Simon. 

We’re being outgunned by other nations. One Polish electronics retailer found that over half of visitors to its bricks and mortar shops had already researched products online. So it made efforts to create stronger links between its on- and offline channels. It started to offer shoppers a tablet computer each to help them shop and research as they go round the store. Now the same retailer is opening up a huge 2,000 sq metre store in Warsaw which will house a specialised gaming area and dedicated zones devoted to specific vendors. “This is a retailer which is creating a shopping experience which is innovative, exciting and relevant,” says Simon.

Shoppers expect the world now. “Customers want online prices to be lower than the high street. But the logistics of picking, packing and shipping goods – not to mention web site management – are all burdensome costs. Retailers risk taking a profit hit online then their stores are under pressure to align with online pricing,” says Adam.

Many retailers talk about ‘click and collect’, but the real winners of the future will be those who crack the click, collect and return process, predicts Simon. The M&S experience in this domain is good – you choose online, pick up at the store of your choice and then benefit from the full organisational support of the M&S returns procedure in case you don’t like the product.

One day I’m going to ask for a refund on all the plastic bags that M&S has forced me to pay for. I bought them, but when I got them home I decided they’re not really me. So surely I’m entitled to a refund. Maybe I’ll wait until you can do returns online.

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