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Sounding Board: Aiming for A Low-cal Tech Diet

Retail can work hand-in-hand with technology, but should not be consumed by it.


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Let me ask a question: Have we reached the tipping point of retailing and technology or just the intersection?

Not a simple question, and one that has no simple answer. I think I will take a page from the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and reserve the right to change my mind whenever applicable—without the tweets.

Technology has had a transformative impact on retailing and many feel we are just skimming the surface in terms of the supply chain, in store operations and customer outreach in an industry.

But as the world swoons over drones, driverless cars, robotics, sensors, VR, A.I., IoT and other acronyms, have we reached the digital overload leading to the dehumanization and ultimately the devaluation of retailing?  

Are we so caught up in trying to convince everyone, including ourselves, that system 2.1 is better than system 2.0, we forget that keeping things interesting for customers is what made retailing great? As the German Philosopher Martin Heidegger prophetically wrote in 1977, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology.” 

There is, however, a big difference between chains and the ties that bind. I am not some Luddite who sees technology as an evil tool of the ruling class. Quite the contrary. Despite my advancing years, I barely remember a time without it, nor would I want to turn back the clock. 

However, the most valuable technology is the one that creates a seamless online-to-store experience, bringing the amenities of the online world to brick-and-mortar. In other words, engaging customers at different levels.

One of the most powerful is mobile payment. It has been estimated that 70 percent of all mobile users in the U.S. will make a mobile payment this year and those payments will total about $60 billion by 2018. This means that retailers who do not implement some kind of mobile system are throwing away customers and dollars. 

Kroger’s “Digital Shelf Edge Project” consists of sensors and analytics technology that enable shelves and products to interact with customers and offer tailored pricing through their mobile devices as they walk the aisles. This is likely to be expanded in the coming months.

We can all cite numerous examples of practical technology as a selling tool. And it is indeed a valuable tool in the hands of a skilled workman, but it is not the only tool. 

I am convinced that stores that not only survive, but also thrive, in the coming years will be the ones offering unique in-store experiences. If we lose sight of the creativity that has been a hallmark of retailing for the past century, we are admitting that an app is just as good as a tactile experience. I, for one, am not there yet—and neither are customers in multiple demographic groups or else we would be seeing a lot more empty real estate.

In the final analysis, customers remain interested as long as they want what you sell—not what you want to sell or try to sell them for their own good. Case in point, kale. In my opinion, a great marketing accomplishment and a PR coup worthy of the great PT Barnum. 

But a showman like Barnum was on the right track. The idea was to keep customers coming back. What keeps them coming back to your store? The old stack-it-high-and-watch-it-fly philosophy just does not cut it. And we know that price alone is not the magnetic force we all thought it was.

It might be as simple as building creative in-store displays or taking a page from the great department store merchants that made window displays an art form. Of course, you need windows in order to do that. 

If you can, create what has been called a “decompression zone” inside the front entrance of a store—an empty space that services as a transition from outside to inside that enables customers to experience what the store is all about and what you have to offer. 

Lease unused or unproductive space to local entrepreneurs and artists who might be selling everything from jewelry and clothing to paintings. Develop your own Top Chef-style competition with local chefs, student chefs or with customers and feature the best recipes—with sampling—in the stores. It is about creating some kind of an event on a regular basis that will keep people coming back to the stores and maybe even inspire them.     

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