Does In-Store Technology Really Deliver a Better Customer Experience?

Sep 18, 2013

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.

Which of the three trends – equipping associates with tablets, providing customers with self-service options, or making the physical shopping experience more like the web – has the most potential to truly improve brick and mortar experiences?

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37 Comments on "Does In-Store Technology Really Deliver a Better Customer Experience?"

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Debbie Hauss

If I have to choose one, I’ll say making the physical shopping experience more like the web. This gives the shoppers control over the research process. Equipping store associates with mobile technology is good and will help, but you’re still dealing with human interaction, which is often flawed. Self-service technology is also good, but often flawed, creating frustration for the shopper.

Frank Riso

Equipping associates with tablets is the number one step. It gives the associate as much information about the products as the customer may have. It gives the associate confidence to engage the customer instead of running away from them. If a customer comes into your store to buy something, sell it to them. Even if you do not have it in stock, the tablet lets the associate find another store nearby or to be able to order it online and ship to their home. Having access to information is the equalizer for store associates who are out-gunned by the customer and all their devices.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I like the self-service option because it gives the shopper the option to interact or not. Doesn’t mean that’s best for the store. We’ve discussed in this forum before the pros and cons of a self-checkout option.

Dave Wendland

In my opinion, these three approaches may not be mutually exclusive. I favor bringing more technology into the brick-and-mortar store to better mirror the capabilities of the web-based storefronts (e.g., companion sale recommendations for a better customer solution); I also am a proponent of equipping associates with information in the aisles (this should enrich their ability to guide shoppers); and finally, self-service options have their place. However of the three, this has the greatest risk of deteriorating customer service.

Ian Percy

And the winner is…Bob Phibbs!

We seem determined to try everything except the most powerful force on earth…the human spirit.

Marge Laney
4 years 29 days ago

Associates equipped with tablets are a game changer. I was originally with Bob on this one, but after we deployed our fitting room tablet app that gives the sales associate the ability to offer a personal, knowledgeable experience, I changed my mind.

Customers want to engage with associates who can truly help them make a buying decision by providing them with more information. Tablets give associates that ability and, let’s be real here, what Millennial sales associate doesn’t love the iPad? It’s intuitive and they are adept at using it efficiently.

Associates armed with tablets offer a better experience to the customer and they feel more competent knowing that they have information at hand. Tablets are a win win.

Tom Redd
Okay, let’s think like shoppers for a minute. One reason a shopper goes to a store is to purchase something. The reason they go to non-essential stores is for the WOW factor. They want an experience. The web starts the journey of the shopping experience and the store fulfills the journey. Going forward, the store needs to not just be like the website – it must extend the experience(s) that the website started. Soon all us retail experts will understand that in the shoppers eyes, the thing called “shopping” is a single channel game. Web, store, catalog, etc., is just shopping and not all this channel stuff. Next, there is no one answer for how to help associates sell better at the store with devices. Some associates are best armed with tablets to address shelf stock issues. Others need nothing – except better training on how to serve the shopper and make them want to come back. Technology does not drive retail – the shoppers do! So the type of shopper and their needs defines what a retailer should do with the in-store situation … there is no ONE answer for all. That is just a bunch of tech spin… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum

We have got to find a way to create a differentiated in-store experience. “Making it more like the web” is not the answer. Self-service options are not the answer – you can do it easier on the web once you know what a product looks like.

It’s got to ride on customer-employee engagement.

J. Peter Deeb

I believe that putting technology in the hands of employees, when properly utilized, will enhance the shopper’s experience. Finding items, checking competitive pricing, potentially checking out a purchase while in the section, etc. is a logical step in customer service progression. This cannot be done, however, at the expense of the touch and try that brick & mortar offers.

Max Goldberg

I agree with Bob, the more brick and mortar stores emulate the web, the less reason there is for consumers to visit them. Technology that would enhance the in-store shopping experience include: locators, to show consumers where items are in the store (especially big box and supermarkets); product information, be it through QR codes or some other means; and coupon/loyalty programs, to allow coupons to be uploaded and used on mobile devices and permit loyalty programs to also reside on mobile devices.

Mark Heckman

Of the three, I believe that providing shoppers with self-service options is likely to prove the most beneficial as it provides additional functionality (as an option) for the shopper without diminishing the option for personal (human) assistance, if desired. Notice that there is a distinction between providing shoppers self-service options and replacing personal service with self-service technology.

Any situation where the shopper is being empowered with more technology and choices while maintaining the ambiance and the service levels that have been established as points of differentiation, will likely lead to enhanced customer engagement.

Ken Lonyai

Full disclosure – I’m a retail technology consultant by trade.

There’s no doubt that technology can enhance the retail experience, but retailers can’t suspend logic to do so. At any of my presentations you’ll hear the statement “technology for technology’s sake is a bad thing.” That applies to any retail technology including the three described here.

For example, many BrainTrust colleagues have voiced concerns about doling out mobile devices without training employees on how to use them. So I agree totally with Bob Phibbs that unless they are trained to use them judiciously and unless applications are designed to help employees help customers personably, less customer service may be the result.

I see the real benefit of technology being consumer engagement through experiential retail displays. There’s a lot coming (especially in fashion) for those retailers willing to invest in their future.

Joel Rubinson

I’d choose the first but also think the third one is important. Stores have limitations on inventory and to be able to search the chain’s inventory or pricing is an important benefit. It might be the store personnel who do this, however. This was my recent experience at buying a washer/dryer at Home Depot.

Bob Phibbs

Let’s be clear here, I’m not some Luddite saying ban technology.

What I am saying is that technology is a luxury – after you’ve done everything to find a way to make the shopping experience more human. That involves better hiring, training social skills and yes, retail sales training.

Once you’ve hit that bullseye on the target, additional tablets, etc. can help but they are not the bullseye we are being told they are. They are an outer band.

Untrained, bored, disengaged employees are still just as deadly on the sales floor with a tablet. The experience a tablet offers lazy employees means they don’t have to check the rack, check on the customer, or make eye contact.

The employees serve the machines, not the customers. Big miss in my opinion. Huge.

Cathy Hotka

Tablets and phones are going to win, because they help retailers effect an endless aisle experience in the store, and speed checkout. But there will be a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes, as IT and supply chain leaders work to realize the promise of these compelling new technologies.

Shep Hyken

Why not do all three? That said, the personal shopping experience combined with the web experience is a winning combination. Technology allows us to track our customers’ presence in our stores. When they walk in, we can welcome them on their smart phone. We can offer suggestions based on past experiences. We can offer specials based on their buying preferences. Imagine if that synced up with a tablet and the associate can communicate with the customer based on this information. Powerful way to deliver a personalized experience – with the help of technology.

Robert DiPietro

The best way to improve the bricks and mortar experience is to equip the associates with the right tools to get the job done. If the job is assisting customers in the buying decision, then a tablet like device is great if it links to the store’s inventory systems and provides key comparison charts or other information that can supplement the product knowledge of the associate. It would be great to also check the customer out right there, but that isn’t the primary focus.

Adrian Weidmann

Retailers need to make their brick and mortar environments an extended experience. In-store technology needs to be implemented to fulfill the design and experiential objectives. If the in-store experience is just like the online experience, why should a shopper even make the trip? Shoppers still want to feel, touch, smell, see and experience and then buy. You can only see and buy online.

Let’s not forget about people. To date, I have found that retailers are drawn to in-store technology as a vehicle to reduce headcount – not empower their staff. The attraction may be founded on enhancing the shopping experience, but the ROI and financial rationale is all about the bottom line. Retailers like Hointer seem to be getting the right balance. Minimizing in-store staff while creating a balance between online and in-store.

Jason Goldberg
I love my friend Bob, but did he mention that he’s a self-identified curmudgeon? (kidding) I don’t buy Bob’s argument that better information tools mean distracted sales associates. 100 years ago the best sales associates kept a black book to keep track of their customers, and replacing that black book with a digital version that is much more familiar to the typical sales associate isn’t a distraction. When a typical store carried 1,000 SKUs that changed once a year, and for which “brand name” was a perfect surrogate for quality, sales associates could be experts on their entire inventory. Today, with 40K – 100K SKUs that change 6+ times a year, and for which shoppers want to know about dozens of unique product attributes, it’s simply not possible to provide great service without digital sales tools. Social proof has emerged as the most influential product attribute for many product categories, and it’s all but nonexistent in stores that don’t offer digital sales or merchandising tools in the store. Sales associates are a heck of a lot more distracted by being assigned dozens of inventory management and store maintenance tasks while they are supposed to be selling, than they are by… Read more »
gordon arnold

At the present time e-commerce is a very young retail tool. This day’s discussion demonstrates three components of what should be built as a single goal. Each of the components should be planned and built separately from a single budget and a single objective. The omission or any minimal effort including time delays will not only impede the effectiveness of the component, it will drag down the entire e-commerce effort.

For the time being, retailers are burdened with a customer population that is in need of all three aspects of this discussion. In a flat economy retailers must address all of the consumer population needs and wants to maximize sale opportunities. Easy for the consumer is good for the business.

Joanna Beerman
Joanna Beerman
4 years 29 days ago

Making the physical shopping experience more like the web has the most potential – with a qualifier.

The store has to be BETTER than the web. As a consumer, I want access to the same level of information (or greater) to support the sale plus something additional to augment the experience (e.g., personalized customer service).

Doug Garnett

Tech is far too often a distraction taking corporate staff away from a focus on delivering meaningful advances and getting too wrapped up in endless efforts that add little to the shopper experience.

Tech can be tremendous when it is meaningful … when it adds to what the shopper needs. But even these three trends show little of that. I’ve wasted too much time standing in an aisle while an associate attempted to find what I need on their tablet.

And make the store like the web? I hope not – a cacophony of noise with infinite distractability? The web’s advantage is massive selection. Stores need to leverage their advantages … not copy what they can’t copy.

So my advice… Don’t follow trends. Look at your customers, your product mix, and determine those things that help lead shoppers to buy more. That’s different in every store.

Michele Miller
Michele Miller
4 years 29 days ago

Equipping associates with technology could have huge implications for closing the data gaps and knowledge of the customer from online to in-store. Why should the website know more about your customers’ preferences and purchase history than your store associates? The brick and mortar experience can be far more personalized if technology is used in the right way, and the customers feel like they are getting more value out of making the physical trip.

Ed Rosenbaum

There have to be more customer service options. Removing the store personnel from the equation makes no sense to me.

Ralph Jacobson

The answer to the title question posed by this article, “Does In-Store Technology Really Deliver a Better Customer Experience?” is YES. However, technology alone doesn’t typically improve the experience without proper implementation.

Today, these discussions tend to be too myopic and usually center around the latest gadget. In-store technology that assists the shopping experience includes everything from automated labor scheduling apps and shelf stock replenishment apps to POS, and everything in between. This is not just something the employees and/or shoppers hold in their hands. Buying a bunch of tablets for the employees will do absolutely nothing without the proper execution strategy.

Any and all of these trends can be helpful, however we are missing the point if we simply look the end game and not ensure the processes to get there are in place.

Peter Charness

If there was just one type of retailer in the market, with one business model, then maybe there would be just one answer to this question. Reality is that a high-service retailer will have a different requirement from a completely self-service one. I think “web functionality” is a minimum cost of entry for everyone and after that, whether you support full service or self service may vary. Over time, everyone will need to raise their game in all 3 areas.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 29 days ago

On equipping associates with tablets, I agree with Phil Rubin. Getting the associates out from behind a counter is a great idea and will enhance customer experience. It also provides a solution to offer customers an endless isle with consultation (value add) from an associate.

Self-checkout is about cost savings for most retailers. One place self-service has worked really well and favors the consumer is self check-in at airports.

I agree with Phibbs and Rubin on the last point. Retailers need to take the best of the web and tie that in with the in-person, hands-on experience of in-store shopping. You don’t want to mimic completely, to Phibbs’ point.

Bill Hanifin

Equipping associates with tablets has the most potential to improve customer experience with one big “IF.”

IF the technology empowers the employee and the employee is sufficiently trained and empowered so that transactions become easier, quicker, and more pleasing to the customer, then this is a winner.

IF the technology is introduced as eye-candy without the training and seamless integration into the experience, then it becomes an annoying distraction.

On the self service options, price checking and comparison have value, but I still struggle with the “pleasing” nature of self checkout. I’ve tried it in grocery and DIY settings and find it to be almost demeaning. Consumers have been taught to pump their own gas, swipe their own cards and enter their PINs. Now we have to check ourselves out of the store and bag our own purchases. What’s next? Maybe we’ll get discounts for working the loading ramp as we unload our purchases from the web that are shipped in-store.

Phil Rubin
4 years 29 days ago

This was a great discussion in Cincinnati and likewise here on RetailWire. The clear takeaway is that improving the customer’s experience requires technology and people. People don’t have the capacity to scale and immediately replicate when things get busy, nor do they have infinite memory storage capacities. Conversely, technology can’t do what people can do in terms of interacting with customers, creating emotional bonds and changing behavior.

As John Nordstrom pointed out many years ago, customer service is about helping the customer buy something. Today that is best accomplished with technology AND people.

Vahe Katros

Door #1, #2, or #3 where Carol Merrill is standing – or – change the game and get creative around the shopper experience.

But the tech described here will help us incrementally arrive at the answers, so I like all of it.

Tom Redd spoke in prose.

James Tenser

Wait just a minute there, colleagues! There is a HUGE assumption built into many of these spirited and thoughtful comments. Not sure what it is? Re-read the headline:

“Does In-Store Technology Really Deliver a Better Customer Experience?”

Here we have been debating alternative practices based on the unquestioning belief that shoppers want more forms of tech embedded in their in-store experience. Shouldn’t we be asking them?

Does an associate carrying a tablet device make your shopping better? How? How much? On what shopping missions? Does it make you want to come back again? Are there trade-offs? Can we observe that you succeed more often? That you spend more money with us versus our competitors?

How about addressing a similar set of questions surrounding tech-enabled self service? Or for making the store more “web-like”?

Okay, so the penetration of digital technology into the retail environment is already unstoppable. That doesn’t mean we should define strategies based on blind assumptions.

There is so much behavioral and attitudinal research needed in this area. We shouldn’t trust the solution vendors to do all of it, because of their built-in natural bias. This is a big opportunity for the retail trade associations and academic researchers.

Kenneth Leung

The key is technology CAN improve the store experience, but it needs to be properly implemented to make it successful. Out of the three I would say providing associates with tablets (assuming there is enough associates around to serve the customer) to provide information assistance and checkout would be the best investment. If your employees get the help they need, you get better retention rates and the customer service improves.

Martin Mehalchin

Great discussion and lot’s of great comments, especially Tom’s and Jason’s. All three of the options can be deployed to improve the in-store experience. I’ll add that execution is key, another case of “easier said than done.” Tablet systems need to provide associates with the information they need in a way that fits their workflow and self-service options need to be intuitive for shoppers to use and provide them with information they find useful. Sounds simple, but it can be really hard. There’s never been a better time to be working in store/experience design.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
4 years 28 days ago

My experience is that this is dictated by the type of retail environement and the retailer’s brand DNA. In a commodity-oriented environment, self-service, “web-like” touches, etc., help with efficiency – which is what the customer usually wants in that environment. In a high-touch, luxury environment, only those brands that have technology in their branding (i.e. Burberry) should mimic the web in store. Tablets for staff are very useful if they are used to provide additional information, access to product, etc. But the staff must be well-trained or it becomes distracting.

Jerry Gelsomino

I think the two trends with the most potential are equipping associates with tablets and providing self-service options. Both provide speed and convenience. Having experienced both types of service, they each gave me confidence I was being a ‘smart shopper’.

Herb Sorensen

I’m not much impressed with any of the three options. Every technology company with a toe in the water realizes that there is a vast fortune to be made by selling technology to retailers, to enhance the shopping experience. Personally, I think there is a massive void in understanding what the shopping experience is, and at least a few billion dollars will be squandered working on “mud on the wall” apps, of all varieties.

That doesn’t mean that none of these are of value, but the real problems at self-service retail are a lack of clarity of path for the shopper, and lack of clarity as to which of the multitude of items confronting them are the right ones for them. Both of these have solid, scientific, statistical solutions. Providing technology tools to further compound the expectation that shoppers will benefit themselves through the use of the tools (or staff will HELP them,) seems to miss the point.

Alexander Rink
4 years 28 days ago

I would say equipping associates with tablets will have the most impact. Self-service options, by contrast, improve the checkout experience, but not the whole shopping experience. There are certain categories (e.g. grocery) for which equipping associates with tablets would not be applicable, but it can add a lot of value for the others through more knowledgeable associates, better service, on-the-spot competitive price intelligence for price matching requests, and an improved checkout process (on-the-floor checkout), to name a few.


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