Improving the shopping experience

In the first of a series of articles, journalist John Ryan tells us why retailers and in-store technology may at last be becoming comfortable bedfellows.

Improving the shopping experience

Technology disappears but remains

There was a time when retailers seemed proud of technology and what it represented. Back then, iPads proliferated in stores and larger versions, known as touch screens seemed, in the view of many, to be the answer to the problem of keeping sales on track. Of course, they were nothing of the kind. Any kind of screen in a shop is simply a tool to offer information and access to the net for those who want this kind of thing. It was never going to provide a direct line to incremental turnover.

One of the problems with in-store technology as it has been until recently was that it was viewed as an end in itself. The thinking seems to have been that if in-your-face technology were in a store then the shoppers would come. There was little reason to imagine why this would be the case, but retailers were almost dazzled in the techno headlights and there was a sense that if the headlong rush were not joined, then a store really wouldn’t count. Now, for the most part, those days are a thing of the past. There are still plenty of retailers that have gone down the iPad route but, with a few exceptions, they are no longer placed in a store leaving shoppers to get on with it. Instead, technology is now used as a genuine adjunct to the shopper experience.

Now technology is a rather more strategic retail tool. The DFS flagship furniture store on London’s Tottenham Count Road is a case in point. There are certainly a couple of screens that shoppers can browse if they wish, but the real sales push comes when a shopper has a consultation with one of the sales staff, each of whom is armed with an iPad. Using these, plans and drawings can be drawn up on screen showing what a room in a DFS customer’s house might look like with a piece of its furniture in it. It’s a simple thing to execute, but what it points to is the phenomenon of ‘assisted technology’. It’s a bit like the self-scan versus manned checkout at your local supermarket.  Given the option, most people will still go for the manned checkout, even though the person who helps is doing exactly that which you can do yourself. It is about incorporating technology as part of the retail experience. It needs to be there, but a measure of human interaction is what going to the shops is all about.

Even those stores that are positioned on an overt use of technology exhibit this aspect of what shopping is now about. The new generation of Argos stores in the UK have banished the paper catalogue that used to be a feature of their retail proposition, replacing these with multiple touch-screens on which shoppers can browse and order. So far, so isolated, but the reality is that once an order has been made via one of the screens then the human bit kicks in. The shopper will head for the collection desk where a member of staff is on hand to help. It’s the same with the “click and collect” service in most stores. It would be perfectly straightforward to make this a fully automated process, but manned pick-up desks seem to have won the day, Amazon lockers (from which you can collect items pre-ordered from your laptop) notwithstanding.

So where does all of this take us? The answer is that technology really is capable of improving the shopping experience, but it has to be deployed sensitively and the need for a human element when shopping remains. Customer-facing technology is here to stay, but it will effectively disappear when set against how things have been. ‘Assisted technology’ is the order of the day. Retail outlets and technology in-store may at last be becoming comfortable bedfellows.

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