Finding the Technology Consumers Want (and Don't Want)
As retailers get smart with technology to help them pinpoint their offerings, we’re getting a clearer understanding of what shoppers love. But what do they hate? Not many people talk about that, but it’s very useful to delineate for the sake of getting to know your customers better. If you can figure out what shoppers hate — and reduce how much of that is coming at them — your high-tech offerings are much more likely to be accepted ... even, possibly, eventually loved.
What do Shoppers Hate?
Shoppers loathe anything that makes them feel unspecial — i.e., no one was thinking about their needs before they got to the store. For example, having to search for someone to help them or, even worse, not finding any salesperson at all to help them is a travesty. One place this happens with appalling regularity is at the check-out counter of major department stores. A shopper who has spent two exhausting hours combing the store and trying things on doesn’t want to be thwarted at the last minute by not being able to find a person to pay for her armful of new outfits. That’s downright insulting.
This brings us to check-out-counters themselves. Shoppers detest having to wait in line to pay at a check-out counter, and often take umbrage when the overworked sales staff calls out, “Next guest, please!” This language rings hypocritical when used in support of what's clearly a business transaction. There’s been little enough sales staff help that the shopper feels that it’s already been a self-service experience. To elongate the impersonal service by cattle-penning her into a line and then calling her a “guest” is dreadful!
When a consumer has gone to the trouble of coming to the store for a particular item, they abhor finding that this great-looking thing they saw online is out of stock. It's even worse if the hapless retailer’s website showed it being in stock. Hot on the tail of this beast is shoppers’ scorn for finding the perfect garment while cruising the store, but not in the right size. To the customer, the message is, “Go back to the drawing board.”
The fix? Well, Canadian retailer Shoppers Drug Mart has teched up something pretty cool. In the cosmetics aisle, sales associates find shoppers looking for something, and then help them with sophisticated apps to find just the right thing. Then they check them out right then and there. Granted, retailers have to think about shrink and how to get the shopper to pay for the stuff she takes out of the store, but the expedited checkout itself can turn a "hate" into a "love" for the customer.
How Does Technology Play Into These Dislikes?
While there are definitely things on the hate list for shoppers — e.g., being reminded by text that it’s time to buy more absorbent undergarments, or beacon shots based on a shopper's proximity as they walk down the aisle — technology is also being used behind the scenes to improve the retail experience that shoppers actually love.
First, more retailers are going for a guideposting concept (the constructive opposite of showrooming), where the inventory in-store helps the shopper make a purchase decision, and then they can schedule a delivery or go home and order it online. If you go into a Bonobos Guidepost (that’s what the sign on the store says) you'll find iMacs and iPhones on top of the neckties and trousers because that’s how the staff serves you.
This is also why we see more vertical integration and private brands. Retail isn't about bulk warehousing anymore; it’s about brand, vision and entertainment. Think of Pirch, Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma. Furthermore, many mass retailers — Macy’s and J.C. Penney come to mind — increasingly view their retail stores as local-delivery distribution centers. These retailers feel more secure in stocking up the store based on the three-digit ZIP catchement area, fairly sure that they can manage the inventory to avoid markdowns.
It’s no mystery that technology has put vast opportunities into shoppers' hands and, by extension, into the hands of retailers. On the one hand, shoppers like being able to summon a sales associate from the changing room in Bloomingdale’s; they like to find out if a different size shirt can be delivered to the office by J.Crew; and they like checking Red Laser to see if the item they’re looking at is cheaper if they walk across the street. On the other hand, malls are often at odds with retailers. How about an app that tells you the 17 stores that are selling that little black dress you want, with locations and pricing? Mall managers think this is a great idea, but, unsurprisingly, retailers don’t.
Power to the Store: What Shoppers Love
People love shopping, and they love shopping in physical stores. In the U.S., 90 percent of sales happen in physical stores, and even online, 50 percent of purchases are made from websites run by companies with physical stores. Shoppers love stores. Even for items bought online, 67 percent of shoppers will go to a physical store at some point on their shopping journey to discover, test, take home for a trial, consult with a sales associate, schedule a delivery or pickup, or make a return. The physical store will continue to dominate consumers’ imagination and appeal.
The future of retail is in the hands — literally — of consumers. She (and he) loves shopping in stores, but makes discoveries and gets informed online. And almost half the time they’re getting this information in-store on their mobile device — 47 percent of shoppers consult their phone while shopping in-store. Consumers love the social and entertainment aspect of physical shopping, but they also love the infinite insight offered by the online experience. They love feeling the fabric, the thrill of the chase and the splash of the purchase, but often don't want to carry the bags home with them.
Chicago’s Marshall Field famously said, “Give the lady what she wants.” With the dramatic increase in technological capabilities and shoppers’ desires, retailers have to be careful, however. Some services add value, while some just make shoppers angry. The tools have changed, but the goal remains the same: Give the lady (and the gentleman) what s/he wants.