How should retailers balance personal versus impersonal experiences?

Photo: Sheetz
May 23, 2017
Art Suriano

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Art Suriano, the CEO of The TSi Company.

At a large family reunion I recently attended, a conversation around retailing turned to how ordering a sandwich in a convenience store was no longer convenient.

In many c-stores today, the customer must take it upon themselves to order what they want at a kiosk, as if any dialogue between the employee and customer was not allowed. Two of the guests loved it because they were confident they would get the sandwich exactly how they wanted it. Yet three of the guests found it to be an inconvenience and impersonal not to be able to speak to a human being. So, what’s the point?

Simply, today we have evolved into two very distinct shopping groups: the personal and the impersonal.

And by impersonal, I don’t mean cold or indifferent, but rather just a group of people who don’t want the fluff and prefer speed over conversation. They prefer to do it themselves rather than having someone do it for them. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, what retailers must understand is that these two groups are very different with their wants and needs. To be successful, retailers must equally address both and not abandon one over the other.

Eventually, the dedicated in-store shopper may begin to enjoy some of the online shopping conveniences just as the staunch online-only shopper may acquiesce from time to time, realizing that when buying certain products, the in-store experience is much better.

My concern is that too many retailers in a panic are tilting too far to the technology side and by doing so will alienate the customer who prefers the more traditional in-store shopping.

If you feel you need to invest in Wi-Fi and an app that does everything in place of the store associate, fine. But beware of the customers who will not respond positively and will walk out if they can’t find a well-trained associate to help them. For every convenience added for the “I’d rather do it myself” shopper, don’t take one away from the traditional one. Simply employ a good balance of both.

  • Today There Are Two Types Of Shoppers And Retailers Can Have Both! – Art Suriano

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see a bifurcation of shoppers into those looking for personal versus others looking for impersonal experiences? What further steps should retailers take to adapt to those customers wanting personal in-store experiences versus those wanting impersonal ones?

"Retailers should evaluate and analyze their shoppers, their brand positioning and promise and tailor the service level to their customers' needs."
"The big “aha” is that shoppers now expect these tech tools to be available to them — but they must be optional."
"One key truth makes this more complicated: I don’t think these are clear segments."

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19 Comments on "How should retailers balance personal versus impersonal experiences?"

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Susan O'Neal
8 months 8 hours ago

If you believe the old adage “the customer is always right” is still true then we must accept the reality that different customers have different definitions of service. Retailers either have to choose who they want as customers and cater obsessively to them and not worry about the rest (like Trader Joe’s) or try to be all things to all customers. The latter involves knowing you will fall short for some customers who can get exactly what they want at a retailer that has focused their strategy entirely on them.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I think there are a lot of dichotomies in shoppers: DIY vs. needing service, fast vs. social, shop around vs. habit purchasing and so forth. It is incumbent on the retailer to understand that being on the edge ONLY is not cool. This is not an age or generational thing. I’m a Baby Boomer and I’ll use self-checkout and pre-order my Jersey Mike’s on my phone. But I won’t use McDonald’s self-ordering and I don’t use Apple Pay.

Charles Dimov

Omnichannel retail captures this whole notion perfectly. It blends both, and at the very least gives retailers that differentiating option of being able to do online shopping or in-store shopping — or both – if they want to just do a pickup. This is true for the various generations of shoppers and for both customers who prefer personal and impersonal shopping experiences.

As for terminals that don’t allow the shopper to talk with the associate — that’s a mistake. It means those stores are basically saying they are not interested in a whole class of shopper. It’s OK for efficiency but I would question the effectiveness of such a drastic approach.

Adrian Weidmann

I’m not sure shoppers want or aspire for an impersonal experience. Retailers created this bifurcation because their customer service and experience was (is) so bad. They are grasping for technology to reduce headcount and mask their struggles by offering technology that they claim will improve the customer experience. So much bad customer service these days — employees that are rude, not helpful and inattentive and experience — drives shoppers to avoid the frustration and headaches. Not only does this drive folks to technology but it drives shoppers to online shopping.

Nir Manor

There are many types of shoppers and their attitudes towards personal vs. impersonal experience varies along a wide spectrum, far from being a bipolar situation. The same shopper may change his attitude in different times and on different occasions (for instance depending on if he’s in a hurry or not, if it’s a weekend or weekday, if he’s alone or with friends/family … ). Store type, location and vertical are also important. Luxury goods shoppers would require more personal face-to-face interactions whereas grocery shopper need much less. Retailers should evaluate and analyze their shoppers, their brand positioning and promise and tailor the service level to their customers’ needs, taking into account customer satisfaction but also ROI and efficiency.

Doug Garnett

One key truth makes this more complicated: I don’t think these are clear segments. Whether I prefer using gadgetry to place my order or prefer placing it with an individual depends on the day, what I’m buying, which store, which category and whether I’m alone or with others.

So I thoroughly agree with this conclusion — but I caution against merchants creating rigid segments and designing all their efforts around them. Stores have to create room for a range of people to be satisfied.

It also isn’t about speed or convenience. These two approaches are, I believe, more personal — representing mostly how we perceive the speed or convenience, not how fast or convenient it is in reality. (It’s often slower to use the terminal to place an order.)

Overall, we need to stay focused on the ultimate goal: when the shopper leaves the store we want them to have had an experience that leads them to want to come back again. How should each experience be crafted to make that happen?

Brandon Rael
Personalization is the critical component for going to any brick-and-mortar location these days. Retailers would be remiss if they eliminated or reduced personalization from their strategies. The experiential approach to the retail journey is what will differentiate traditional brick-and-mortar locations from pure-play e-commerce businesses. With that said, there are two different types of personalized strategies that can be employed in our omnichannel world of shopping. One being a more high-touch, associate-led personalization approach in which the salesperson has all the insights about the consumer via all the various shopping channels and can enhance and improve the shopping experience armed with this information. In this case the customer enjoys and expects an ongoing interactive person-to-person shopping experience. On the other side of the spectrum you have the DIY shoppers. Personalization in this world comes in the form of consumer insights which drive a digital interaction with the customer in the store in the form of pop-up messages, RFID powered location tracking and kiosk/magic mirror types of shopping. Essentially, technology enhances and enables the customer to shop… Read more »
gordon arnold

The most noticeable aspect of the consumer concern expressed in this discussion has been the aspect of speed and its relationship to person-to-person communication when placing an order. When the consumer faces endless pages of clumsy information requests and/or slow communication, the problem is very evident. When these circumstances are addressed and monitored the benefits of automation far outweigh the consumer’s fear of change.

People who find themselves stuck in enormous drive-thru lines only to be rewarded with cold meals that are not what they wanted will readily attest to the misery of the old ways. Today’s automated company is also able to monitor and address inventory needs and planning with much more accuracy and thus limit out-of-stock embarrassments or overstocking costs. Change is good when properly planned and implemented.

Jasmine Glasheen

This reminds me of a conversation we had around the holidays about in-store greeters. I felt that holiday greeters could be obtrusive, especially en masse, to customers who just want to run to the store for necessities.

Shoppers are individuals whose needs fluctuate on a daily basis. Some shoppers skew towards introversion and prefer to avoid unnecessary chit-chat while others thrive on human interaction.

In light of this, store associates should be flexible in shopper interactions. While they need to be friendly enough to talk with the customers who prefer it, they also need to be careful not to be aggressively social to customers who prefer to deal with technology.

Pavlo Khliust

That’s exactly what omnichannel strategy presumes: reaching out to customers from different touchpoints — whether it is a self-serve kiosk for ordering McDonald’s or a store associate helping you match the best evening outfit.

The point is that most retailers just can’t afford to concentrate on one group of consumers only. Where will your business be if you rely on Baby Boomers only? Or Millennials? Or whatever-the-generation-is? Nowadays we have a mix of ages shopping and it is reasonable to offer a mix of services. Following this approach, even “impersonal” shoppers will get a personalized experience.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Laura Davis-Taylor
Co-Founder, High Street Experience
8 months 6 hours ago

Adding on to Nir’s points …

Years ago, I was working on a very intense exploration on this topic for a major beverage company. The big “aha” is that shoppers now expect these tech tools to be available to them — but they must be optional. The levers were: what kind of shopper, where they were on the tech curve (optimist vs. pessimist), what kind of shopping was happening (leisure vs. mission), their price sensitivity and the time they had available.

The wildcard, however, is Adrian’s point above. For many retailers, the associate experience is so dismal they will reach for technology to avoid a negative experience. My personal opinion is that for those retailers for which this is the case, no amount of technology is going to fix them in the long run.

Jeff Hall

Integrating technology within the store experience can be a good thing, provided the technology enhances the experience in such a way that it isn’t perceived as being impersonal. The key is to give shoppers options and choices as to what their personal in-store experience is like and to let the shopper determine/control their experience.

Ordering kiosks, self-serve checkout and order ahead apps are great for those who don’t care much for conversation and banter with a store associate, while other shoppers prefer the interaction. So long as the customer can influence the store visit based on personal preferences, resulting in a customer-driven, desired outcome, everyone wins.

JJ Kallergis
Stores need to do some self-reflection and understand who they are, what makes them unique, why shoppers tend to choose them and build a focused customer experience around that. Unless you completely eradicate the personal in-store experience provided by a courteous and knowledgeable store associate, it is difficult to tilt too far to the technology side. Sadly, many retailers forgot who they are and ignored the basic blocking and tackling of retail a long time ago, which has paved the way for more nimble and focused retailers to gain headway. A kiosk or mobile app is not a breakthrough and merely provides another option for customers, freeing up the bottleneck of store associates a little bit. Technology will continue to help the overall retail environment, which in many ways is overweight in square-footage and underweight in high-quality store associates. And we will continue to see this progress through the use of AI, robotics, etc., but arguably at a slow and painful speed for many retailers, which will sadly not be good enough to support their… Read more »
Jerry Gelsomino

It’s accurate to define two types of shopper; those who want to do it themselves or self-service, and others who want an informed sales associate to work with. For stores that have engineered a self-service mentality, I strongly urge them to build “the illusion of service” into their strategy. By this illusion, I mean do all you can to communicate that your staff and service design is built around a superior knowledge about the product category you handle. Then, although the customer may never use your services, you have built a reputation of expertise. This works whether you are selling the tastiest sandwiches, or computers, or fashion apparel.

Kai Clarke

Actually, this is not as simple as the author claims. We are not a society of personal vs. impersonal interfaces in our shopping experience. There is much more complexity to this, including such factors as “cool” shopping, placement shopping, ease of shopping, rapidity of shopping, selection, price, location, etc. There has always been a trade-off between more personal experience and less personal ones, especially as technology advances and allows us to more easily choose between these (i.e. online).

Craig Sundstrom

Though I see what Art is saying (I think) and agree with it in principle, my thought is nevertheless “good luck with that!” Personnel-replacing apps are developed for a reason — they replace personnel. And it’s a numbers game — if the savings from depersonalization are greater than the revenue lost (from alienated customers) that’s what’s gonna’ happen. Big stores might be able to swing having a duplication, but smaller ones are unlikely to. Of course all of this assumes the app (or whatever) isn’t so alienating that it scares everyone away.

Ken Morris

From a cost and labor scheduling standpoint, retailers realize the benefits of automating the in-store experience, but depending on the product category and customer demographics they must be careful not to alienate their customers with a frustrating experience. Younger generations that have grown up in the digital age are more likely to prefer to engage with technology than people. While many Baby Boomers are slower to adopt new technologies and non-personal services, they will eventually jump on the digital/self-service bandwagon. Offering incentives for customers to choose the self-service path may help accelerate adoption. However, in the meantime, retailers need to understand their customers and offer multiple engagement options to accommodate their customer preferences.

Ralph Jacobson

As has always been the case for retailing, those merchants that are agile enough to adapt to changing consumer preferences, including multiple demographics changing demands simultaneously, will be the ones to not just survive, but thrive.

Cate Trotter

I think a combination of personal and impersonal or, as I often think of them, fast and slow retail experiences is the way forward. Take Starbucks’ Reserve store concept — customers who want a slower or more personal experience get waited table service with no queues, exciting brewing methods, etc. (all a step above the normal Starbucks experience) and those who want a faster or more impersonal experience can pre-order their drink using Starbucks’ app, walk in the store, collect it and leave. It’s that marriage that I think all retailers should be aiming for. It’s not just about two separate types of customer (personal and impersonal) it’s about realizing that every customer sometimes wants a personal experience and sometimes wants an impersonal one.

"Retailers should evaluate and analyze their shoppers, their brand positioning and promise and tailor the service level to their customers' needs."
"The big “aha” is that shoppers now expect these tech tools to be available to them — but they must be optional."
"One key truth makes this more complicated: I don’t think these are clear segments."

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