Is retail’s future bull(ish)?

Back to the future

The Retail Summit is taking place while I’m in Dubai this week, an event that promises to explore retail’s convergence with technology and experience.

It comes hot on heels on the NRF Big Show 2019, which I attended in New York, last month. Once again, this great annual show featured a feast of major tech innovators showcasing their wares, keen to convince retail’s stalwarts that the future will be brighter in their hands.

Now I’m no technophobe. Like many shoppers, I love some of the improvements we have today – contactless payment, e-receipts to my inbox, self service checkouts and more… have all made life to some extent better.

…“experiovation”? Yes, that’s a ‘thing’, apparently.

I am though surprised by just how much, as an industry, we continue to allow tech to dominate the conversation. For me, it’s time we started to restore a greater sense of balance and natural harmony to strategic retail decision-making. All too often now we rely on a device for this, a robot for that. There is (or promised to be) an algorithm, an app, a device and report for everything… every problem a retailer has can be solved digitally. Or, so we’re told.

This year, the NRF was the biggest yet – more exhibitors, more attendees and more of everything (and yes more ‘bull’ too). Do we really need “experiovation”? Yes, that’s a ‘thing’, apparently. Add to that an audience that is warily interested, cautiously experimenting and keen to be seen to be doing ‘the right’ thing with their Boards and Investors – and the potential for missteps is huge.

Some of what is now ‘possible’ (and will be talked about in Dubai again this week) is breathtaking but uncontrolled the focus on tech has become a paradoxical self-fulfilling prophecy of retail self-harm. It’s plain to see that the ‘physical’ store development agenda has fundamentally been hijacked. There have been many useful and valid decisions by retailers over the last 10 years but this has come at the real cost of their physical store operations. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the wheels were going to ‘come off’ shop sales for some retailers at some point.

Is tech really just an unwelcome distraction to the bigger issues in retail and diverting desperately needed investment money into making things better for shoppers? I think so.

Expert service and human interaction is what’s missing…

Retail is being gradually directed and absorbed into making buying easy and ‘frictionless’ but not everyone is going to want a vision of retail that fails to celebrate spontaneity of response, glorious failure and recovery, and magic moments of friendly and helpful interaction. Why would we?

The tech experience does not factor into it the quirks of human behaviour. And how man, and woman, will behave in ways that ultimately try to cheat and add cost to the smart programme. How many shoppers still enjoy cheating the “How many carrier bags question have you used” – claiming a ‘mini win’ over the retailer and government in a heart racing rush moment of “I got that for free”…

It takes a certain amount of the right friction to get our hearts racing. Amazon has made buying easy but they still have a lot to learn about real shopping experiences, as evidenced during a recent visit to the generally criticised Amazon 4 Star retail store in NYC Soho. Real stores offer ‘experiences’ where people still pay a valuable role alongside all the tech – complementary not exclusive.

In truth, expert service and human interaction is what’s missing from many of physical stores today. Too many times of late I’ve witnessed poor service, missed opportunities and a sheer lack of ‘people presence’ in stores.

In simple terms, this can reduce the quality of everything

In a climate where there is an acute focus on finding ways to reduce costs, some retailers are guilty of reducing headcount and turning to technology to compensate. The reality of cutting staff numbers means that there are fewer people in stores, and those that are have to do more.  In simple terms, this can reduce the quality of everything – less time to focus, specialise, attend to and get important details right. Counteracting strategies that may appear to mitigate the worst of the problems – “let’s overcome this by doing this” – often only compound the problems. No dedicated staff or place for online business instore? No problem. Just pass it to the cash desk area, overwhelm staff, introduce clutter – make do! No dedicated store staff to greet and welcome customers on arrival or to attend to queries and offer help instore? No problem, just provide a service app and a bell for help and introduce more signage to say ‘Hi’. Fewer hands available to manage stock replenishment throughout the day – no problem, just put more of everything out on display. Don’t worry that the perception of exclusivity and brand standards reduces in the same way that nouveau cuisine loses its appeal if the same food is piled high canteen or Truck Stop Café style.

I’ve long been a fan of Retail Exec’s stepping out of the S Suite and doing more of their business instore. Here they can see at first hand the simple cause and effect consequences of their remote decision-making. Decisions that seem to be ‘cost saving and consumer friendly’ can often to turn out to be less well received.

Let’s look the beast (or the ‘bull’) in the eye

Yes, people are expensive. They need paying, motivating, training, supporting, welfare, post-service pensions, holidays and more. Tech doesn’t and is ’always on’. Retail, though, is still a social commercial business. Would Apple sell so much of its complex, expensive, fragile technology if its stores did not swarm in eager, helpful staff members who are there to introduce the brand, demonstrate products, offer help, advice and service? I doubt it.

So come on, let’s look the beast (or the ‘bull’) in the eye. Survival of the fittest, leanest and able to invest in the ‘big stuff’ will pay a part. However, there is, and always will be, a place for the small matter of ‘humans’ in all of this. A renaissance of retail craft, skills in shop keeping, skills in service delivery and stores that have people at their heart in what’s really needed right now.

By Karl McKeever

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