We've all heard the claims: The rapid advance of in-store technology will enable retailers to offer customized offers to shoppers; deliver better service via endless aisles and mobile checkouts; and give shoppers the freedom to use their own devices to enhance their brick and mortar shopping experiences.
Of course, as with most things retail, these claims are debatable. At the d2 Digital Dialogue conference in Cincinnati last week, our panel did just that — debated the potential of in-store technology. Two of the panelists were from our BrainTrust — Bob Phibbs, "The Retail Doctor," and Phil Rubin of rDialogue. They were joined by Aliza Perruzzi of off-price, NYC-based retailer Century 21 Department Stores. Ms. Perruzzi and Mr. Rubin were mostly pro in-store technology, while Mr. Phibbs argued that in-store technology is primarily being used by retailers to cut costs, with customer service declining as a result.
They debated three claims. Paraphrased responses and audience reactions follow below:
#1: The trend toward equipping store associates with tablets and other mobile devices is a positive one. Putting more information and resources in the hands of store personnel tends to result in better customer experiences and increased sales.
The audience overwhelmingly believed the above statement to be true.
Aliza Perruzzi: Century 21 is accelerating deployment of this type of in-store technology, which they find especially important in a low-touch, minimum customer service environment.
Bob Phibbs: Multi-tasking associates with tablets are distracted and pay less attention to customer service. Cost cutting is the real motivation behind this, not improving service.
Phil Rubin: Tablets and other technology free associates up from the check stand and bring them out to help the shopper where he or she is actually shopping.
#2: Customers appreciate good self-service options and often prefer it to human assistance. From self-checkout to endless aisle kiosks, stores can use automation to empower consumers and extend their capabilities.
The audience was divided on this one.
Rubin: Self-service can augment customer service by providing additional options when a store is busy, or additional SKU offerings via "endless aisles."
Phibbs: Physical stores need to provide great experiences, which can't be done with self-service. Funding in-store technology often requires that staff be reduced.
Perruzzi: It would be ideal to invest more in staffing but in an off-price model, technology can extend what associates can accomplish. Plus, customers expect retailers to have current technology.
#3: Customers will increasingly look for web-like experiences when in-store. Retailers will benefit from making it easier for customers to do online research while in-store and accessing their loyalty reward data.
The audience mostly felt that customers don't want stores to be more like the web, which is surprising considering the current enthusiasm for online and mobile commerce.
Phibbs: The more retailers make their brick and mortar stores like the web, the less reason there is for consumers to get out of their chairs and come to the store.
Perruzzi: The overwhelming majority of Century 21's business is brick and mortar. While going omnichannel is a goal, their in-store selection is actually larger, so they're focusing the site on social experiences with events, celebrities, etc.
Rubin: Brick and mortar retailers need to take the best of the web to help them sell more and empower their associates, especially since their top competitor may be Amazon.
For mainline retailers, which would you put the most effort behind?