As the president of GRIP, I am always looking out for outside perspectives on retail. This Q&A article from Forbes magazine offers a critical but encouraging view of what the next few years looks like for retailers. It also offers practical advice that anyone can apply to their business.
Here’s a bit of what you’ll discover in this one-on-one expert discussion of the future of the retail customer experience:
• A robot that diplomatically answers the dreaded question, “Does this dress make me look fat?”
• An Abe Vigoda-clone robotic assistant that finds you the correct wing nut in the hardware store.
You’ll find this and more in this future-of-retail transcript featuring customer experience consultant and speaker Micah Solomon (that’s me, your author) and James Tenser, retail industry analyst, principal of VSN Strategies and author of the TensersTirades.com blog.
But first, I want to make a philosophical (but strategic) point. Ultimately, this discussion’s goal isn’t to survey gee-whiz technology. It’s about how we can help the physical, brick and mortar, three-dimensional retail environment distinguish itself from an online experience. To my thinking, there are two parts to such retail industry success.
Step One of what’s needed for success in the brick and mortar retail environment is what I call “digital parity”: the absolute necessity for physical stores to create an experience that is every bit as streamlined, well-stocked, seamless, easy to use, and fast as what customers have grown used to on the Web.
Step Two is to figure out how to be better than the web—how to take advantage of what can best be provided by a store existing in a physical environment: theatricality, engagement, and the professional assistance of well trained and inspired human associates.
Even the best of retailers are only halfway there in this desperately important journey. Visit Target, for example, fire up the Target app, and ask it to locate, say, the latest Nintendo gaming console. The app will niftily find what you’re looking for, telling you that it’s at aisle F15. But it doesn’t yet give you a “you are here” locator on that map, or GPS you to the correct place; you’re pretty much on your own to figure out where F15 is and how to get there.
In other words, and to put it bluntly: even with the help of the app, it’s a lot easier to find something at Amazon.com than it is at Target. And, just like at Amazon, there’s nobody anywhere near you in the store to help you at your moment of interest.
What’s missing is a big electronic button for serious shoppers that says “have an associate meet me now!” With such a button, the associate would walk you to (or meet you at a GPS-located) aisle F15. At this point, the physical store stops being an also-ran to online commerce and starts to outshine it, assuming it has engaged human associates ready and eager to meet the electronically self-identified customer and tell them about the product they’re interested in buying. It’s at this point that technology becomes an enhancer, a facilitator, of the human connection. And the physical stores start to win again.
Micah Solomon: Robots. The cutting edge of the retail experience, and sometimes even the hospitality experience, involves robots. Have you been thinking much about robots of late?
James Tenser: Yes, there was actually a mechanical clerk stalking me on the exhibit floor at the National Retail Federation Expo in New York a few weeks ago…
Even before that I’d been tracking a curious and rather entertaining rise in retail robots designed to interact with customers in the store. The efforts seem energized by a convergence of technical advances, affordability gains, and increasing wages for their human counterparts.
Solomon: A real-life customer-facing robot application I’ve seen of late is the adorable (and adorably named) Botlr, at the Aloft Cupertino Hotel in the heart of Silicon Valley. This personable little robot can come to a guest’s floor, summoning the elevator for himself, and then on to their guestroom to assist you with items they’ve forgotten and such. He’s a pretty good homage to Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons, albeit without the New York attitude and accent.
Tenser: Similarly, here are some real-life applications I’ve been seeing: “Chloe” – a robotic selling machine installed in a Best Buy store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Resembling an industrial robot arm behind a glass wall, the device retrieves items such as DVDs and personal electronics from a racked assortment of 15,000 items and delivers them to shoppers in about 30 seconds – even after the store is closed.
Solomon: Chloe is cool: essentially a self-service/vending machine, but with almost limitless inventory. Chloe’s like the automat or a vending machine but that can get items far beyond what could be visible to a customer—unlike the limited display in the sandwich machine where when the ham and swiss you want is out, you know you have to make another suggestion.
Tenser: And there’s a prototype robot clerk from RobotLab, San Francisco – that interacts with shoppers on the selling floor and advises them on fashion choices, in a surprisingly academic tone of voice.
Solomon: RobotLab’s work is really intriguing. It’s telling you what will look good on you, what will fit you… it’s a robot that will literally be able to answer “will that dress look fat on me?” – and presumably won’t bear the wrath of friends/partners/husbands who foolishly fall into the trap of answering this same question.
And of course, there are the non-customer-facing robots that are coming out now:
Tenser: Absolutely. There’s Tally–
Solomon: —An incredibly appropriate name, of course!
Tenser: Exactly. Tally is billed as the world’s first robotic autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution. It roams store aisles detecting and reporting stock-outs, price errors and other merchandising issues. Simbe Robotics in San Francisco is the developer.
And there’s RF Spot, Los Altos, CA, an in-store sensing robot designed to rove the aisles, capture store conditions and maintain accurate location maps. It was installed in five Tesco stores in the UK, where they are being used to track and maintain its F&F apparel line.
Back to the customer-facing robots, one of my favorites is OSHbot – a robot deployed in an Orchard Supply store in San Jose that greets shoppers in English or Spanish and leads them to their desired purchases. Show it your carriage bolt; it will find you the wingnut that fits. Follow Robots is the developer.
Solomon: As far as Orchard hardware store and OSHbot, the robot that can find a wingnut for a screw you bring in, that’s smart. On the other hand, doesn’t it make you a little sad; it’s efficient but it’ll never take you back to those old guys who know their entire inventory and not only can find you the right nut but can give you the scoop on whether this is the right season to be wingnutting or whatever?
Tenser: You raise a good point. OSHbot has lots of inventory information, but no hands-on experience. It doesn’t even have hands.
Solomon: Maybe what we need to do is design the robots to look like experienced old guys who work in hardware stores
Tenser: Like Abe Vigoda, wearing a canvas apron …
Solomon: Right, Abe Vigoda, with a bit of plaster dust in their hair and a slow, shuffling stride and creaky voice and the magic will be back.
Sensing and sensibility: Creating “Digital Parity” in the physical store
Solomon: As you know, one of my key principles for what the brick and mortar customer experience needs to evolve to today is the concept of “digital parity”—customers’ desire for a physical experience that is every bit as convenient, extensive, and streamlined as what they’ve encountered online. It seems to me that in-store sensing is going to be key to making this a reality.
Tenser: Exactly. I think in-store sensing is a trend whose time has come. For a number of years now, we’ve been hearing about systems that keep tabs on merchandise status and shopper traffic, using a mix of RFID, video cameras, smart shelf tags, POS data and beacons that interact with mobile phones.
These efforts have been greatly influenced by the rise of online retailing, where it’s standard practice to track and analyze visits, views, paths, clicks and purchases. Similar insights are desired in physical stores, and there are a wealth of vendors stepping up to provide systems and devices that can detect and automatically analyze store conditions and shopper behaviors.
Solomon: Of course, it’s not just the customers who benefit when we use the Web as a model.
Tenser: Yes. From retailers’ perspective, there’s a desire to understand more about how people and product move through the brick and mortar environment. Paths through the store may be analogous with paths through the web site. Dwell time (how long a shopper stands in one location considering a purchase) may be compared with the amount of time spent on a web page.
Sometimes we see path-tracking visualized as a kind of “heat map”, where the densest concentration of paths reveal where shoppers have traveled most or dwelled longest. This information has value to store designers and merchants who locate promotional displays.
When this information is overlaid with transaction or basket data, there are opportunities to extract insights that can inform category adjacencies, store layout, and promotional effectiveness. These are analogous to the kinds of visibility and empirical insights that ecommerce designers use to try to refine their online stores. It’s a path forward for chain retailers who used to fly blind.
The inevitable Internet of Things (IoT) discussion
Solomon: Of course, it’s inevitable that we talk about the internet of things. Not just the smart thermostats and door locks, or the fridges that tell you when to buy more eggs, but the numerous IoT opportunities within the retail store. The in-store sensors, of course, are a key manifestation of this. Any additional trend you’d like to tell me about? What about IoT? Is that for real as far as retail is concerned?
Tenser: Definitely yes. A great example are the new IoT receipt printers from Epson and Star Micronics that are capable of communicating whole transaction data directly to the cloud without the need for integration with the POS. They are inexpensive and powerful – a game-changing advance, I think.